Three minutes into Thursday night’s game, the USC Trojans were already down, 14-0, to the Utah Utes. It was a disastrous start for the Trojans, but it still ended with a win, as USC reset, reloaded, and won, 38-28.
USC’s first two offensive series ended in seven points each – for Utah.
On the second play of the game, senior center Khaled Holmes, returning from an ankle injury, snapped the ball low to quarterback Matt Barkley. Barkley ran after it, tried to scoop it up, but had it ripped away by Utah’s Nate Fakahafua, who took it in for the win.
USC got the ball back, but two plays later, there was another problem with the snap, and the Utes’ ferocious nose tackle, Star Lotulelei, ended up on top of the football. The Utes needed just two plays of their own to get back in the end zone, and just like that, it was 14-0 with twelve minutes left in the first quarter.
There was plenty of football left to be played, and USC didn’t panic – they played.
When they got the ball back, they marched 75 yards down the field and Silas Redd punched it in for a touchdown, and USC was back in business.
The momentum really started to swing solidly in the Trojans’ direction in the second quarter. USC was down, 21-10, when tight end Randall Telfer made a one-handed grab for a touchdown, pulling the Trojans within one score of the lead. Utah gave the ball right back to USC, or more accurately, Trojans defensive end Morgan Breslin took it, recovering a fumble to set USC up for a touchdown drive to take their first lead of the night.
Later, in the fourth quarter, Utah was only down ten when quarterback Jon Hays, under pressure from Breslin, tossed a pass right at USC’s Nickell Robey, who sprinted it into the end zone to cement USC’s win.
In typical ESPN Thursday Night Football fashion, the game was full of excitement and wild momentum swings.
Barkley was at his best leading the Trojans to a come-from-behind win. His passes had all the zip and precision they’d been lacking at times earlier this season, and he unloaded a few downfield, including a beauty that Marqise Lee turned into an 83-yard touchdown. It was a career-long for Barkley, who topped 300 yards with three touchdowns and was spot-on, completing 23 of 30 passes. (That percentage could’ve been even better; once again, a few USC receivers dropped sure catches.)
Lee, who has usurped Robert Woods as Barkley’s go-to had 192 receiving yards, with eleven rushing yards to nudge him over the 200 mark for total offense.
Woods was more involved against Utah than he’s been this season, with a 41-yard catch, his longest of the year, and a touchdown. He also had a scary moment following a punt return, when he was blocking and took a nasty hit from Utah’s Brian Blechen. Woods, who admitted after the game that he was “dazed,” got up and started towards the wrong sideline, before stumbling and falling to the ground. He was helped off the field but successfully passed a concussion test and re-entered the game a play later.
There was a lot of hard-hitting during the game, and Woods wasn’t the only Trojan affected. Tailback Curtis McNeal was hit hard at the end of his first carry of the night, which was negated by a holding penalty. He came off the field and never went in, and after the game, several USC players told members of the media that McNeal had suffered a concussion.
With McNeal out, and Redd getting banged up later in the game, redshirt sophomore D.J. Morgan had plenty of carries to test out his surgically repaired knee. Morgan, who missed the last three games after minor knee surgery, averaged more than five yards per carry in his return, with nine carries for 46 yards.
It took the Trojans a few series to get running, due in large part to Lotulelei, who is as good – and as impossible to block with just one offensive lineman – as advertised.
For the Utes, star running back John White IV finally found his football legs. White, who had 1,500 yards last season, had struggled with an ankle injury but had 13 carries for 68 yards against the Trojans.
Utah quarterback Jon Hays was 19 of 32 for 160 yards, two touchdowns, and a costly interception, but he started strong (10 of his first 16) and made some great throws, including a long ball downfield that would’ve been a touchdown but was called back for a penalty.
Penalties were a huge problem for both teams, which had more than 100 penalty yards each. USC struggled with false starts, particularly in front of the Utah student section, and particularly on third down. Four times, the Trojans had third-and-short and had to move back because of a penalty. Holding and personal fouls also became factors for both squads, who each had big gains negated due to penalties.
Another concern for USC was kicker Andre Heidari, who missed two of his three field goal attempts against the Utes, from 40 and 48 yards. (He also missed a 27-yarder but thanks to a penalty on USC’s Max Tuerk, Heidari got a do-over, and the 32-yard attempt was true.) Heidari, who missed the Syracuse and Stanford games due to arthroscopic knee surgery, had as many misses in this game as he did all of 2012.
The Trojans face Washington in Seattle next weekend, and given the teams’ history of close games decided by field goals, it would be reassuring to know Heidari is 100% healthy and ready to go.