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USC shows it can win ugly, beats Utah 30-23

Utah came into town on a Friday night, and the storyline could have very easily been how the tenth ranked Utes beat USC and to put their stamp on the college football landscape. Instead, USC battled through an injury to Kedon Slovis to win, and win ugly.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, USC lost ugly. The defense played well, but not well enough to make up for USC’s listless offense. Forced to pound the rock, USC just could not do enough against a BYU team that played only three lineman to take away the Trojan passing game.

Luckily for USC, Utah failed to pick up on that strategy. Utah consistently rushed four defenders, allowing USC receivers more space than they had been allowed last week. And that one fewer defender made all the difference.

But that’s jumping forward too fast. This game began with USC driving and Kedon Slovis looking sharp. Until this hit.

Slovis stood in tall to deliver the pass, and took a brutal hit in the process. In the NFL, this play is likely called for driving the Quarterback into the ground, but unnecessary roughness penalties are not as consistently called on the college level.

After the hit, Slovis stayed down, then struggled to his hands and knees. When he fell back onto the ground, Trojan fans collectively held their breath as trainers rushed onto the field.

Replacing Slovis was Matt Fink, who played sporadically last season and almost transferred from USC this spring. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell had cited Fink’s competitive fervor and up-and-down nature in listing Fink behind JT Daniels and Kedon Slovis on the depth chart. And boy did it show.

When Fink was first inserted, his excitement was palpable. He was sailing many of his passes. Most were catchable, but you could tell that Fink was pumped to be on the field. His first play was a statement: a deep shot to Tyler Vaughns that was slightly overthrown.

That theme would reverberate throughout the night. When Daniels went out against Fresno State and Slovis took over, Harrell went conservative, relying on the run and the quick passing game. But when Fink went in for Slovis, the opposite seemed to occur. Fink was given the green light to sling the ball around the field.

And boy did Michael Pittman Jr. benefit. Pittman gained 232 yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions. Fink’s proclivity for deep risky throws vibes with Pittman’s style of play. Pittman was able to rise over, run past, and run through defenders. Sometimes on the same play.

With Fink as quarterback, USC began to rely on big plays down the field. Passes of over twenty yards made up 205 of Fink’s total of 351 yards.

Fink gained most of that yardage through scrambling and finding receivers deep in chaos.

But with the pros, also came the cons. This is a beautiful play by Amon-Ra St. Brown, but Fink threw into tight double coverage. This is the type of play that coaches hate to see as it is developing, and can finally breath after seeing the result.

And the good comes with the bad, Fink escaped pressure and threw an ugly pick on minus territory.

This first look at Fink captaining the air raid offense was certainly more telling than our first look at Slovis. Under Fink, the offense will have big plays and big mistakes. Against Utah, Fink made more big plays and that propelled USC to the win. Looking forward, USC will need to have a stronger intermediate game to rely on to move the chains when the big plays aren’t working. And hopefully Fink can continue to deliver more big hits than big misses.

On the defensive side of the ball, Clancy Pendergast’s unit did just enough. USC was plagued with unnecessary roughness penalties throughout the game, including two called on freshman Drake Jackson. But this doesn’t seem to be an issue to worry about going forward because both of those calls stemmed from borderline plays. There was no undisciplined play in that department.

Where the Trojans were undisciplined was in gap control and responsibility. Through the first half, Utah was able to misdirect and confuse USC’s defense for chunk yardage here or there. But Utah ultimately shot itself in the foot with penalties.

Utah had ten offensive drives over the course of the game. Over those ten, two resulted in touchdowns. One resulted in a field goal. And Utah was forced to settle for field goals twice after stalling out due to penalty; USC blocked one of those. Utah had one drive ended by penalty allowing USC to sack QB Tyler Huntley for a safety. Another drive was stalled by a false start. Out of ten Utah drives, the USC defense was only able to stop three without the aid of a penalty.

The most entertaining drive killer was a Utah false start on first down. Three plays later, Utah was faced with fourth and five, and had to punt. Had Utah not incurred that false start, that drive may have swung the game.

Utah was so encumbered by penalties because of an inability to recover after being put behind the sticks. Utah averaged only 5.8 yards per play (USC averaged 7.05). So on average, if Utah had just one penalty, making a first down was a herculean task.

So it’s hard to take much from this game in terms of optimism. USC’s offense looked great in stretches, then listless in others. USC’s defense limited Utah just enough, but that may just be attributed to a horrid day for Utah’s offense.

Ugly wins are ugly because sometimes you aren’t sure if they prove your team is good or not. But an ugly win is still a win. And USC puts one on the win column against the Pac-12 south favorite. Let’s not overthink it.