Trojans take care of Utes in Salt Lake City

Junior linebacker Kana’i Mauga led the Trojans with four solo tackles Saturday night and picked up a sack. Mauga had 11 total tackles in USC’s victory. (Photo courtesy of John McGillen / USC Athletics)

It wasn’t always pretty, but No. 20 USC is now 3-0 after a 33-17 victory Saturday against Pac-12 South rival Utah. Utah, oddly enough, was playing its first game of the season after having its first two canceled by positive coronavirus tests.

The story of the evening was undoubtedly USC’s defense, particularly in the second half. Coordinator Todd Orlando’s unit shut out Utah in the final two quarters. After struggling to contain the Utes’ rushing attack in the first half, the Trojans allowed only 37 rushing yards in the second.

“He has no fear in his calls and the kids believe in him and the system,” head coach Clay Helton said of Orlando in the post-game virtual press conference. “And tonight it was evident. I mean, the confidence was just radiating off of them.”

After allowing a Utah touchdown inside the final minute of the first half to cut USC’s lead to 24-17, the Trojan defense allowed 0 points and forced Utah into an additional two interceptions the rest of the way.  

USC’s defense was led by sophomore linebacker Ralen Goforth, who had a team-high 12 tackles, as well as junior linebacker Kana’i Mauga, who had 11 tackles and a sack of his own starting in place of injured junior linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV. Helton praised Mauga for taking advantage of his opportunity and filling a role for USC when needed. 

“There was a lot of talk to our whole defense saying that we’re gonna be in a bar fight,” Mauga said. “And that’s basically what we did. We took the fight to them, gave more blows than we took and just came out on top.” 

Sophomore linebacker Drake Jackson continued to impress, intercepting an overthrown screen pass from sophomore quarterback Cameron Rising in the first quarter. Rising was announced as the starter just before kickoff after Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham avoided making an announcement earlier in the season.

Jackson’s fellow members of the pass rush enjoyed successful nights, as both redshirt junior defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu and his brother, freshman defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu, recorded sacks in critical moments. 

After Marlon Tuipulotu’s second quarter sack and forced fumble on Rising deep in Utah territory, the Utes’ signal-caller was forced to exit the game and did not return. Rising was replaced by senior Jake Bentley. The veteran fared slightly better, but the turnover bug would continue to haunt the Utes.

“Our pass rushers did an amazing job tonight,” Helton said. “They forced throws that caused interceptions, sacks, fumbles in the backfield — it just felt like we were playing in the backfield all night.”

Another key contributor to the strong defensive performance was junior safety and Tuipulotu family cousin Talanoa Hufanga, who solidified the back end of the Trojan defense with an interception for the second consecutive week and compiled 10 total tackles.

On the offensive end, redshirt freshman receiver Bru McCoy had the best outing of his young career, leading the Trojans with eight targets in the passing game. McCoy finished with a career-high 66 yards and matched his career-high with five receptions. Redshirt senior receiver Tyler Vaughns caught his first touchdown of the season and his 20th total touchdown as a Trojan in the win.

The Trojan backfield continues to lack clarity. Senior running back Vavae Malepeai became the first Trojan with 20 attempts in a game this season, gaining a pedestrian 62 yards on just over three per carry. Malepeai rotated with sophomore running back Kenan Christon, who was the most involved he has been this season for Mike Jinks’ running back group. Christon had five carries for 55 yards, the majority of which came on a 47-yard run in the third quarter. 

Redshirt sophomore running back and short-yardage specialist Markese Stepp missed the game with a pectoral injury. Helton said senior running back Stephen Carr was pulled from the game early in the first half after aggravating an ankle injury. 

Still, the success of the running game allowed USC to sustain drives and balance the offense. This marked the first time the Trojans carried a lead into the fourth quarter this season. 

“We kind of knew it was going to be Vavae’s game and Kenan’s game,” Helton said. “And I thought they did a nice job. Kenan came in and gave us an explosive run and Vavae was that every-down back that we needed.”

Questions remain over the status of sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis, who finished with another solid statistical line but continues to miss open receivers on both short-yardage and deep pass attempts, especially early in the game.

Slovis appeared to have a pass attempt slip out of his hands, threw an interception near the end zone and struggled with accuracy throughout the evening. Despite the difficulties, Slovis managed to rack up 264 passing yards and completed just under Helton, Slovis and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s targeted mark of 70% of his passes in the win. 

“I don’t think I played very well as a whole,” Slovis said. “I have to execute better. We left a lot of points on the board and that’s mostly because of my play and not being disciplined enough.” 

Though USC’s defense forced five turnovers, the game was within striking distance for Utah deep into the second half. Through three games, USC is yet to score a touchdown in the third quarter and red zone struggles held back the Trojan offense once again. In six visits to Utah’s red zone, Harrell’s group racked up 27 points. 

As a result of USC’s red zone struggles, freshman kicker Parker Lewis is seeing increased opportunity to solidify himself as a contributor on special teams. Lewis was 3-for-3 on extra points and 4-for-4 on field goals including a career long of 47 yards.

The contest was USC’s final game outside of Los Angeles this regular season. USC now moves to a matchup with the undefeated Colorado Buffaloes this upcoming Saturday at the Coliseum.