Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

USC takes 1st step back, beats Utah State big

It could have been better, USC's 38-point win over the Aggies. But it could have been worse, far worse. Saturday's must win in the Coliseum opener was a step in the right direction.

Considering the alternative, USC's 45-7 home-opening win in front of an announced morning crowd of 62,487 at the Coliseum was about as much as anyone could ask for.

Is this performance good enough to beat Stanford next week in Palo Alto? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not. But it was far, far better than what the Trojans put on the table last week in Texas. And that's all you can ask for right now.

Get better. Play harder. We'd add "play smarter" to the list here but how about pulling that out this week for the folks on The Farm.

Because the one thing we needed to see from this now 1-1 USC team was effort -- a team that believed in itself. Never say die. Don't quit. Fight On, if you will.

And for the most part, that happened here in this earliest home kickoff since the 1950's. The Trojans could have mailed it in. Could have said they're way better and saved it for next Saturday.

We didn't think they would go through the motions and they didn't. Maybe they couldn't after last week's historic loss to Alabama. But with all the emphasis on running the ball and being physical on the offensive line, it didn't work out that way exactly. Listen to Clay Helton describe what he said was "our form of winning . . . what we like to do is stop the run," Clay said, especially "against a dynamic running quarterback."

That's where you're maybe going to have to start with this team every week. They think they can stop you from running the football and for a team like Utah State, that had gained 428 yards on the ground a week ago with its quarterback and tailback combo, the Aggies managed a mere 49 yards on 26 carries, an average 1.9 yards a try. That effort will win you football games."

Even against Stanford's rock-'em, sock-'em run game? "I hope so, said 340-pound USC nose tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu. "They've got hard-nosed football players. They're the only Pac-12 team that plays like that. It's weight room against weight room. You have to get ready for your body to be sore the next day."

But this game moved USC in the right direction, Stevie said, who improved his self-grading system from last week's D-minus despite accolades from his coaches. "I think I got a B," Stevie said, "hopefully better than that. I'll find out when I see the film tonight."

That's pretty much the way Adoree' Jackson was talking later even with his 77-yard punt return TD, the third of his career, in the third quarter. "I'm excited about how the defense played," Adoree' said. As Coach [Helton] said, we were trying to limit the running backs to 64 yards [they got 52 with a net of 49] and limit the quarterback [Kent Myers, who got minus 3].

They weren't alone. Cameron Smith showed his nose for the ball once again with a team-high 13 tackles. Chris Hawkins had eight. Porter Gustin had six including a sack for 12 yards and two tackles-for-loss for 13. And when they needed him, Leon McQuay seemed always in the right place his four tackles and fourth career interception.

"Coach Clancy [Pendergast] is making it easy for us," Leon said of his reunion with his freshman defensive coordinator. "I get to play the Dion Bailey position. He was always around the ball" as the nickel. "Now that's me."

Not that there wasn't a decent amount of offense here and some real improvement against an outmanned -- but well-coached and decent program -- but the next kudos go to special teams where Adoree' had his return TD and freshman Michael Pittman got things going with a blocked punt with the ball on the 50 six plays after USC offensive tackle Chuma Edoga got ejected for contact with an official after throwing his elbows around in a post-whistle scuffle.

USC needed a pick-me-up after the second ejection in two games. "Extremely disappointing," said O-line captain Zach Banner. "I told him that's bull-crap. We don't want Coach Helton to get a bad rap. This wasn't on him."   

But with Pittman's flying block that moved the ball snapped at the 50 in a scoreless tie to the Utah State 6 after Quinton Powell scooped it up but couldn't quite stay on his feet, USC was off to the races a bit. JuJu Smith-Schuster would get his first score of the season -- and USC's -- on Max Browne's first career TD pass from the 3 three plays later.

"A day of first," Max said of his first start -- and win -- at the Coliseum. "Awesome."

Max was 23 of 30 for 182 yards, as USC quarterbacks spread the ball out to 10 receivers with JuJu and Darreus Rogers each catching seven with JuJu's producing a pair of TDs and Darreus' a game-high 82 yards. Deontay Burnett's came on a 13-yard sideline tightrope and athletic dive from Darnold and Steven Mitchell's on a two-yarder, as each grabbed a TD pass from the redshirt who is now a fixture in the Red Zone, completing five of seven for 62 yards.

With Ronald Jones leaving with dinged ribs after just five carries for 12 yards, the run game was OK. Seven Trojans, led by Justin Davis' 70 yards on 16 carries (a 4.4 average), carried the ball with Ajene Harris on a flanker pass that turned into a 14-yard run and Burnett, with a 12-yarder, averaged in double digits while Jalen Greene gained 20 yards on two carries on tthe quarterback run package at the end. Aca'Cedric Ware added 57 yards 9a 5.2 average) on 11 carries.

Add it all up and that's 178 yards on 44 carries and enough, Helton said, to make Utah State pay attention to the run game and give the receivers a chance to get free. That's the formula. It wasn't perfect. "We made some mistakes," Helton said. "And we have some cleanup to do."

But Nico Falah jumped in for Toa Lobendahn at center and performer flawlessly. "Nico killed it," Banner said of his center play and line calls. "I had a week to get ready this time," the redshirt junior said. "It feels way different. Last year I had 10 seconds to get ready to go in against UCLA. This year, I had a whole week."

And then Chad Wheeler came on for Edoga and said his foot suffering from plantar fasciitis was almost all the way back. Good news for next week. 

 "We needed this as a football team to get the bad taste out of our mouth," Helton said. And this game did that. But again, it's just a start.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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