As the Trojans headed out of Salt Lake City with a win over the Utes on Thursday night, they did so with an extra bounce in their step. It wasn’t the prettiest of victories, but it was one that showed a lot of the same spirit and resiliency that helped turn the corner for the 2011 team.
This was a game that could have gone south quickly based upon the opening possessions. There was a lot of talk coming into the game about how the Trojans had yet to play a complete game this year, and how they were heading into a lion’s den of fan frenzy with a Utah crowd that was fired up to host USC in front of a national-television audience. On paper, the Utes were definitely the underdog, but the Trojans had seen hopes and dreams dashed on the road before with untimely conference losses. And when two quick turnovers were turned into 14 Utah points, it had all the makings of another dangerous trap game.
To make matters worse, the source of the early USC angst was a familiar one, a dominant nose tackle wreaking havoc on the Trojans' offense. The scene had played out recently in the loss to Stanford when USC center Khaled Holmes was out of action. Holmes was back for the Utah game, but Utes defensive tackle Star Lotulelei had a big impact early with his physical presence, and he played a role in creating the turnovers. There was definite concern while wondering what was going to happen for the rest of the night if Lotulelei was able to continue dominating the game.
Slowly but surely, the Trojans tried to recover from their staggered start. Matt Barkley hit a key third-down completion to Marqise Lee on the ensuing drive and eventually got the ball into the end zone on a Silas Redd run. The Trojans added a field goal to make it 14-10, and then Utah put together its best drive of the night to go up 21-10. Did the Utes have enough to actually pull off the upset? Not if Barkley could help it.
The Trojans signal-caller continued his sharp play with a drive that resulted in a touchdown catch by Randall Telfer that was the prettiest one-handed grab by a USC tight end since the days of Dominique Byrd. That made the score 21-17 in favor of Utah, but then USC caught a break of their own when a non-fumble call by Utah was reversed and the Trojans got the ball with great field position. Barkley quickly took advantage with a touchdown throw to Robert Woods and, just like that, the Trojans had the lead.
Utah tried to stay in the game just before halftime with a trick play that resulted in a touchdown that would have given the Utes the lead and a tremendous dose of momentum, but the play was called back due to penalty. The Trojans held and then blocked a Utah field-goal attempt to go into the locker room with the lead. That missed opportunity for Utah seemed to take the wind out of their sails. They had been given a chance to make a real statement with a touchdown in that situation, and it was a big miss to not get any points.
At first, it looked like the Trojans might try to let the Utes stay in the game in the third quarter. Andre Heidari missed a pair of field goals -- he had only missed two in his entire USC career -- and Xavier Grimble had a dropped touchdown and a critical penalty. But there wasn’t going to be another Thursday USC nightmare. Instead, the Trojans defense stiffened and then Barkley hit Lee with a long pass and run for an 83-yard touchdown. Soon after that, Morgan Breslin applied pressure that resulted in an interception that was returned for a score by Nickell Robey, and that was the end of the road for the Utes.
If nothing else, this game showed the fight in this USC team. It was Woods coming back into the game after being wobbled with a huge special-teams block. It was Lee fighting for every extra yard whenever he touched the ball. It was Barkley putting together his best performance of the year when his team needed it. And it was Holmes battling all night long with Lotulelei and then thanking his teammates in the locker room for having his back after the early struggles.
On a night when they weren’t exactly perfect, the Trojans put together their grittiest performance of the year and walked away with the well-deserved victory.