Instant Analysis: USC shakes up Pac-12, playoff races with upset of Utah
You could see it coming: a relatively drab slate of games in Week 8 ended up producing some crazy results. After Georgia Tech launched the sport into a frenzy with its game-winning blocked field goal for a touchdown against Florida State, USC followed with a definitive 42–24 victory over No. 3 Utah in Los Angeles, handing the Utes their first loss of the season.
The Trojans fell behind early, but the game turned when Utah quarterback Travis Wilson tossed a pair of interceptions to USC freshman linebacker Cameron Smith, the second of which Smith returned for a 54-yard touchdown to give the Trojans a 28–14 second-quarter lead.
USC steadily pulled away from there, and Smith’s third interception, which came with USC up 42–17 and 8:50 remaining in the game, was a fitting capper to an upset that shakes up the Pac-12 and College Football Playoff races.
Here are three takeaways from USC’s win:
1. The Trojans had the perfect recipe to beat Utah
The Utes’ formula all season has been to win with stout, opportunistic defense, a strong Devontae Booker-led running game and mistake-free play from Wilson, who entered Saturday’s game with just three interceptions on the season. But USC forced Wilson into playing like the error-prone version of himself that has surfaced in the past. He started the game by hitting his first nine passes, but it was all downhill from there.
Smith tallied the aforementioned three interceptions (Wilson threw one more on Utah’s final play), and the Trojans sacked Wilson four times, a couple of which were drive-killers. The Utes dropped to 1–9 in games in which Wilson throws multiple interceptions. Head coach Kyle Whittingham told Fox’s broadcast at halftime that he blamed his quarterback’s two first-half interceptions on the intended receivers, but a veteran like Wilson simply has to execute better than he did on those two ill-advised throws. Booker, meanwhile, tallied just 14 carries for 62 yards against a tough USC defense, as Utah was forced to go to the air more often than it would have liked.
Offensively, after finding yards tough to come by on the ground early against the excellent Utah front, USC adjusted by attacking the edges of the defense, mostly with short passes and screens. The athleticism of players like Juju Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson (who saw more extensive action on offense than past weeks) and Ronald Jones was too much for Utah to handle.
2. The future is now for USC, and it might be 2013 all over again
Recruiting has never been a problem for the Trojans, and with depth no longer as much of a concern as it was when USC was dealing with scholarship reductions, the team entered the season with as much talent as almost any in the country, particularly young talent.
That young talent was on display against the Utes, led by two emerging freshmen. Smith, the star of the game, and Jones, who ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on 4.9 yards per carry, were playing in high school games at this time last year but looked like potential gamebreakers against an elite Utah team. Smith showed off impressive instincts and athleticism in racking up 122 return yards on his three interceptions, and Jones looks like he’ll be a dynamic backfield threat the rest of his college career.
Add in sophomores like Smith-Schuster, already one of the top receivers in the country, and Jackson, who could become one of the most impactful players of the season’s second half if he continues to see more time on offense, and it’s evident that USC has the tools, at least, to develop again into a national power.
While that won’t happen this season, the Trojans showed enough Saturday night to raise the possibility of another 2013-like run to end the season. That year, USC picked up two early losses, and after the program hit a low with the post-Week 5 firing of Lane Kiffin, USC rebounded to win six of its final eight regular-season games under interim coach Ed Orgeron. The parallels to 2015 are unavoidable: USC picked up two early losses, parted ways with Steve Sarkisian after Week 6 and now look re-energized under interim coach Clay Helton. (Helton, incidentally, briefly served as interim coach as well in 2013 when Oregon resigned before USC’s bowl game.)
A USC revival is hardly a given, but the possibility is at least on the table with the renewed fight the Trojans have shown in the wake of Sarkisian’s dismissal. And with Utah now having a conference loss, there’s suddenly a lot more to play for. Which leads us to…
3. Utah's defeat shakes up the Pac-12 and College Football Playoff races
Utah had emerged as a favorite to make the playoff given its strong résumé and its status as the favorite in what might be the country’s strongest conference this season. The Utes’ loss to USC is obviously a huge blow to their hopes, and it creates even more uncertainty in an already unclear playoff picture. Utah could definitely still earn a playoff bid if it wins out, which would entail finishing the season as a one-loss Pac-12 champion with a win over Stanford, most likely, in the conference title game. But after the way Utah played Saturday night, it’s difficult to envision it pulling that off, especially with Wilson’s disappointing regression.
And while the Utes still control their Pac-12 destiny, their defeat means the South division race is now much more wide open. UCLA, Arizona State and USC all sit just one loss behind Utah, and with UCLA still to play both Utah and USC and the various head-to-head tiebreakers involved, all four teams are still very much in the running. The bad news for the conference is if any of those teams emerged as a two-conference loss South champ, and then beat a one-loss Stanford team in the Pac-12 championship game, the Pac-12 would probably get shut out of the playoff entirely.
But that will get sorted out in the coming weeks. The No. 3 team in the country getting blown out by a team that let go of its coach less than two weeks before that game shows how foolhardy an exercise it is to try and predict how everything will play out.