Ralen Goforth wasn’t satisfied. Through two games, he and his fellow USC linebackers had made too many mistakes, taken too many poor angles, missed too many assignments. They’d internalized their reputation as the weak point on the Trojans' defense.
“I try to be my own worst critic,” Goforth said Wednesday. “I’m a firm believer in being a perfectionist.”
Even the kindest of critics couldn’t ignore USC’s issues at linebacker over the first two weeks, so Kana’i Mauga hoped to set a new tone. He hadn’t played much in camp as he dealt with a hamstring injury. But while starting in place of Palaie Gaoteote, who remains in the concussion protocol, Mauga didn’t wait long to prove himself Saturday night at Utah.
The junior linebacker was waiting in the hole for Utes running back Devin Brumfield on the first play of the game. On the next play, Mauga waited for Brumfield again, taking him down this time behind the line of scrimmage.
The early, aggressive statement from Mauga and his fellow USC linebackers was a precursor of things to come, as the Trojans' defense locked down Utah in a 33-17 victory in Salt Lake City. USC held Utah to 119 yards on the ground, the lowest rushing total allowed by the Trojans in their annual divisional matchup since 2015. The defense also terrorized Utah’s pair of quarterbacks, tallying three sacks but pressuring them far more often.
Behind that improved effort was a much-maligned pair of linebackers. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando had planned it that way, calling run blitzes for both and putting them in spots to succeed.
Asked what was most different about USC’s defense Saturday, Mauga said it was the group's “viciousness.” Trojans coach Clay Helton certainly saw that from Goforth and Mauga.
“Both kids had a mindset to be playmakers in this game,” Helton said. “I thought they played disciplined football both of them, and they needed to step up big for us with [Gaoteote] out, and both kids did.”
Mauga and Goforth combined for 23 tackles, while Mauga also added a sack.
Mauga might be the last linebacker standing Saturday when USC hosts Colorado. Goforth suffered a mid-foot sprain, putting his status in question. There’s also no indication how long Gaoteote might remain in concussion protocol.
Kenan Christon had made just three total carries this season when he took a third-quarter handoff Saturday, broke through to the second level and was off to the races.
The sophomore speedster sprinted 47 yards before he was finally caught — long enough to remind everyone of the breakaway speed he used to burst onto the scene last season.
“He’s been waiting for that moment, to have that chance to make that big play,” Helton said. “As soon as he took off, I thought, oh gosh, I thought he was gone.”
That blazing speed might soon play a more significant role in USC’s offense again. Markese Stepp sat out Saturday’s game with a pectoral strain, and Stephen Carr was limited with a neck injury after he was kneed in the back of his helmet. The status of both will be updated later in the week, but Helton said he expects Christon to have a larger role regardless.
“One of his areas of growth, which he works extremely hard on, is pass protection and making that a strength for him, but he's going to gain more opportunities,” Helton said. “Obviously, we have a wealth of talent at the position.”
If Stepp and Carr are forced to miss time, senior Vavae Malepeai is expected to shoulder the lead role. He had 20 carries Saturday, the most he had received in a game since last September.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.