Cam's the man

Trojans knock off No. 3 Utah 42-24 thanks to freshman Cameron Smith's three interceptions with one a Pick- Six and another almost one.

And a child shall lead them. Well, a child with a red beard, if you want to call freshman linebacker Cam Smith a child at this point of the season.

Utah's third-ranked but no longer unbeaten Utes (6-1, 3-1 in the Pac-12) knew what to call Smith and the rest of the Trojans (now 4-3 and 2-2 in the Pac-12) after getting spanked 42-24 in front of 73,435 approving fans at the Coliseum.

"That's the best team we've played all year long -- certainly from a personnel standpoint," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

"Give them credit. It was tough to give them essentally three touchdowns on turnovers and hope to have a chance to win against a team of that caliber," Whittingham said, "and to get no takeaways of our own. That was the difference in the game. Credit to them. Good athletes and good players . . . That was a good football team we played in their stadium and I don't know how they were 3-3 going in but they're really good. Can't give them enough credit."

That's not the way the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Smith saw it. "Enough with the interceptions," he said going from one TV interview to the other after the game.

Sure, he'd done something no USC defender had managed to do in 24 years with his three interceptions -- one for a touchdown, one down to the Utah four, and a total of 122 all-purpose yards, second only to Juju Smith-Schuster's 152 including 143 on eight receptions.

"Obviously what Cam did tonight won us the game," Cody Kessler said after bouncing back himself with a 21-for-28 passing game for 264 yards with no interceptions and a perfect 29-yard TD strike to JuJu.

"We've got a lot of talent in that room," interim coach Clay Helton said, echoing Whittingham as he recorded the second top-five win for a USC interim coach in the last three seasons. That's more than USC's regular head coaches had achieved in the last five seasons.

"We're hard to beat," Helton said. And who could argue with that. If this USC team doesn't beat itself, they can beat anybody. Utah rover Gionni Paul, who had a game-high 17 tackles, couldn't agree more.

"Wow, credit USC, they came to play today," Paul said. "Didn't expect to get punched in the mouth like that . . . We knew USC was a great team with great talent. We knew they had faced adversity the last couple of weeks but they played a good game against Notre Dame. We knew they would be ready tonight."

Ready to do a couple of things that worked well together. "We stopped their run," Su'a Cravens said, exactly what USC couldn't do with the game on the line at Notre Dame. And they took the ball out of Utah running back Deontae Booker's hands, probably the best back in the Pac-12.

"That was the key," Smith said after Booker got just 62 yards on 14 carries, "taking the ball out of his hands. They had to pass."

"If they have to pass, we win," Su'a said, after pulling down USC's fourth interception of the day on a game-ending Hail Mary in the end zone."We don't like losing. Losing is unacceptable."

It was on this night. "We told them 'Failure is not an option,' " Helton said. A loss here and USC's season was pretty much over. Now they're in it, playing what will in effect be a sudden death playoff from here on out.

They'll need help. UCLA, or someone, will have to give Utah a second loss and if UCLA wins out, USC would have to beat the Bruins to run the table. Do that and USC would have the tiebreaker against both teams.

But to do that, and do this on this night, USC had to have an offense do what it did here. Drive the ball. They scored on a nine-play, 88-yard drive, on 10 plays for 76 yards, on 17 plays for 83 yards and eight plays for 92. And all on the Pac-12's top defense.

With Tre Madden's sore knee keeping him out, Justin Davis stepped in as the starter for 66 yards on 19 carries with a touchdown and gave USC that 1-2 punch with Ronald Jones II [73 yards on 15 carries and a TD as well] that made all the difference on offense and made those drives possible.

But when it came down to it, it was still Cameron Smith's night. "When it was 14-7 [Utah] and we needed a spark, he gave it to us," Helton said of Smith's interception and 41-yard return to the 4-yard line to set up the tying score.

USC wouldn't trail again. Freshman Jones ran one in from the 18 for the lead at 21-14 after Soma Vainuku powered one in after Smith's first interception to tie it at 14.

Smith's 54-yard interception made it 28-14 with 1:07 left in the half. And then back-to-back Kessler and Smith-Schuster TDs made it 42-17 with just under 10:00 left and this one was over.

Smith-Schuster, playing with a deep quad bruise from the Notre Dame game and no more than 90 percent back for this game, he said, played through it. And how.

"Incredible," Whittingham said of JuJu. "The guy is the best receiver we've seen all year.'

Then there was the unsung Khaliel Rodgers who came in for Toa Lobendahn when he sprained his knee in a week when Rodgers had been moved to backup guard from center. "I had no doubts," Khaliel said after his flawless performance. "Cody trusted me and I trusted him."

And a front seven on defense that didn't do anything different, Su'a said, just far better and with much more determination to stop the inside run game and Booker. "We've got all this talent," Su'a said, "but if we don't execute . . . tonight we executed. It was nothing new."

Helton singled out a number of Trojans for credit -- Cody and RJII, JuJu and Soma, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox for his gameplan. And after two tight ends went down (Taylor McNamara with a separated shoulder and Tyler Petite with a foot injury that had him in a boot), Connor Spears stepped in.

But in the end, it came down to Cam. "He's one of the more intuitive kids we've seen," Helton said. "He's playing on a very, very high level. It's unbelievable for a freshman."

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