USC's defense leads the way against Utah as Trojans improve to 3-0

Ryan Kartje
·5 min read
USC linebacker Kana'i Mauga reacts after making a tackle during the first half Nov. 21, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
USC linebacker Kana'i Mauga reacts after making a tackle during the first half Saturday night in the Trojans' 33-17 win at Utah. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

They started this strange season as unlikely conference contenders, elevated by virtue of a soft schedule, a star sophomore quarterback, and an ever-lingering sense of unrealized potential. They opened with two unlikely comeback victories and the most unsettling of unblemished records.

But on Saturday night, the USC Trojans didn’t need to get cute to ruin Utah’s long-awaited season opener with a 33-17 victory. They wouldn’t require an onside kick or a fortunate tip or any other lucky breaks to leave Salt Lake City with its first win there since 2012. They barely needed any offense at all.

Instead, linebacker Kana’i Mauga said, “we were going to get in a bar fight.”

“That’s basically what we did all game.”

When the dust finally settled, it was the punches landed by USC’s defense that kept the No. 20 Trojans undefeated with just three games — all in Los Angeles — remaining on their regular season schedule.

It may not have been as thrilling as usual, but it was a much more convincing path to victory than the previous two weeks. USC’s defense came out swinging from the start and never let up. It shut down Utah’s rushing attack, holding the Utes to 119 yards on the ground. It consistently raided the pocket, making new Utah quarterbacks Cameron Rising and Jake Bentley uncomfortable while racking up three sacks. And it forced five back-breaking turnovers that ultimately proved to be the difference.

They forced throws that caused interceptions, sacks, fumbles in the backfield,” coach Clay Helton said. “It just felt like we were playing in the backfield all night.”

That must’ve been how it felt to Rising, who was officially announced as Utah’s quarterback on Saturday night, two weeks later than planned after the Utes’ first two games were canceled due to the coronavirus. By the second quarter, the Texas transfer was sidelined with an undisclosed injury, two turnovers and just 45 yards passing.

He wasn’t the only one who looked the part of someone playing their season debut in late November. The Utes remained largely a mystery until Saturday, as they attempted to replace their quarterback, top running back and nine of 11 starters on defense. So there was no obvious context by which to evaluate the Trojans’ defensive dominance on Saturday.

But allowing just 10 points on defense — and none after halftime — is certainly an impressive place to start. Helton called it “a major, major step forward”.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass during the first half against Utah on Nov. 21, 2020.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass during the first half against Utah on Saturday night. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

“The confidence was just radiating off of them,” Helton said of his defense.

That was especially true for USC’s much-maligned linebackers, identified as the main weakness on its defense. Filling in for Palaie Gaoteote, Mauga had one of the best games of his collegiate career, with 11 tackles and a sack. Ralen Goforth, playing next to him, had 12 tackles.

Plenty of others made plays. Linebacker Drake Jackson was the first to make a sloppy Utah offense pay, jumping in front of a screen pass in the first quarter for his first career interception. Later, Chris Steele also recorded his first career interception.

Utah would be bailed out by a stalled drive on that first turnover. But on its very next offensive snap, fate wouldn’t be so kind, as defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu burst through the line, hit the quarterback and knocked the ball loose, putting USC in perfect position at the four-yard-line.

It was a strikingly similar scenario to where the Trojans found themselves last week, near the goal line against Arizona. Just a few inches away from pay dirt, USC was unable to convert and ultimately missed the field goal, completing one of the most frustrating sequences of its season so far.

On Saturday , however, Vavae Malepeai burst through tacklers on second and goal and ended the suspense early en route to a 10-3 lead.

The senior back was the lead ballcarrier as Markese Stepp was sidelined with a pectoral strain and Stephen Carr was forced out of most of the game with a knee injury. Malepeai rushed for 62 yards while sophomore speedster Kenan Christon broke off a 47-yard run to spark the offense.

Not much else was able to jumpstart a Trojans offense that managed 121 fewer yards than the week before. Concerns about quarterback Kedon Slovis and his right arm are likely to persist through the week, as the sophomore was again inconsistent, missing open receivers at times and throwing into heavy coverage at others.

“I don’t think I played very well as a whole,” said Slovis, who finished 24 of 35 with 264 yards and two touchdowns. “We left a lot of points on the board, and that’s mostly because of my play and not being disciplined.”

One sequence in particular was still bothering Helton after the game. Early in the second quarter, the pocket collapsed around Slovis and the ball was stripped. Utah linebacker Nephi Sewell swooped in, scooped up the loose ball, and scored.

Another Utah fumble on a botched handoff put USC in great position. But this time, Slovis gave the ball right back on an errant pass, intercepted by Sewell at the Utes’ 13-yard-line.

If not for those two mistakes, USC might’ve put them away sooner. Instead, it tacked on a few late field goals to eventually put Utah out of its misery.

"We’re such perfectionists as coaches and as players and we know what this offense could be,” Helton said, “and we’re going to look up and it’s going to turn from a 30-point offense into hopefully a 40- or 50-point offense. We all want more.”

It was far from perfect on Saturday. But with just three games remaining this regular season, USC might not need to be perfect if its defense can land a punch like this.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.