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Film Room: Utah vs. USC

UteZone breaks down the biggest plays in Utah's win over USC.

This week in the ‘Film Room’, UteZone will be analyzing three offensive, three defensive and one special teams’ plays that helped shape the outcome of a 31-27 win over USC. The following are key plays throughout the game, both good and bad, that made a noticeable difference on the game.


1.  2ND Quarter – 3rd and 2 at Utah’s 39-yard line

Utah’s offense is back on the field after watching the USC offense drive down the field and take the lead 14-10. The offense has become a little stagnant since the first quarter, but a 16 yard run by Zack Moss on the first play of the drive has Utah looking to drive down the field and re take the lead themselves. After a couple of short runs, Utah faces 3rd and 2, needing a conversion. They line up in a two tight end set, both lined up on the left of the formation, with two receivers stacked to the right, and Moss off to Troy William’s right.

It’s a straight power play for the Utes, while faking the outside WR screen. The offset tight end Evan Moeai pulls across the formation to seal off the back side of the play, and the left side of the line gets a great push. Unfortunately for the Utes’ though, they lose the battle at the center position. Former Ute Stevie Tuikolovatu get lower than J.J. Dielman, and gets great arm extension to force Dielman in to the backfield. As Moss takes the handoff, he’s greeted by the back of Dielman. In a quick reaction, Moss jump steps to his right, which admittedly was the easier move to make, instead of going left. Had Moss been able to make the adjustment to the outside he very likely runs for a huge gain, as the offensive line has sealed off that side. Instead, he’s forced back inside, and Tuikolovatu is able to easily shove aside Dielman and makes the easy tackle. The Utes are forced to punt, and USC tacks on a field goal before halftime on the following drive.  

2. 4th Quarter –3rd and 4 at USC’s 45-yard line

Utah began the drive back on their own 25, and thanks to a 21-yard completion to Cory Butler-Byrd, are set up inside USC territory. They now face a 3rd and 4, and are down 10 points, so this is a pretty crucial conversion. The Utes line up in trips to the right, and a lone receiver and running back to the left of the formation. Expecting pass, USC comes out with only two defensive linemen on the field, but two linebackers acting as stand up defensive ends. Another USC linebacker shows blitz pre snap, and it appears that USC is going with man coverage with a single high safety.


The stand up outside linebacker and inside linebacker back off the pressure at the snap, and USC brings the outside linebacker lined up over the slot WR on a blitz. In total, it’s only a four-man rush, but they disguised their coverage with it, as they drop in to a man-zone coverage. The outside corners play press man coverage, while the linebackers play zone in the middle of the field. The receiver to the left of the formation, Demari Simpkins, takes an inside release against the press from Adoree Jackson, and is running a slant. Williams’ decides pre-snap where he’s going with the ball, and releases the pass quickly.


What Williams does beautifully is throwing open Simpkins. At no point in his route was Simpkins “open”, but Williams throws him open to the soft spot in between the two linebackers. It’s a perfect throw, as it needs to be fast to avoid being picked off, and Simpkins does a great job hanging on to the ball with Jackson right on top of him. This is what separates Williams from other past Utah QB’s. The ability to throw a receiver open.

3. 4th Quarter – 1st and goal at USC’s 10-yard line

The final touchdown play has been looked at over and over now, but I think many people are forgetting how crucial William’s other touchdown pass was earlier in the quarter, which really gave Utah momentum. Following a 4th down conversion, Utah lines up in their base spread formation. Pre-snap read shows man coverage with a single high safety, and Williams has likely already made his decision on where he wants to throw the ball before the snap.  

USC sticks with its’ man coverage look at the snap, and tight end Evan Moeai runs a route over the middle to clear out the left side of the field. Raelon Singleton takes an outside release at the snap, and give a quick cut to the outside, acting as if he’s running a fade route. Doing so gets the cornerback to flip his hips. When he does flip his hips, Singleton sits down on his route. By the time he does this though, the ball is already on its’ way, as it should be.

Singleton gets good separation from the corner and starts heading for the front corner of the end zone to meet the ball. The ball placement couldn’t be any better, as it’s high and to the outside of Singleton’s shoulder. Really at this point, it’s just a simple catch for Singleton. All the work has already been put in to get open, and he now just has to secure what is a routine catch. He does, and it’s 6 points for Utah.



1.  2nd Quarter – 1st and 10 at USC’s 25-yard line

Utah just put 3 points up on the scoreboard, and USC starts at their own 25-yard line, having fumbled on their three previous offensive possessions. USC lines up in a pistol formation with a tight end to the left, and two receiver split right. Utah combats the look with their “express” package, five down linemen. Safety Chase Hansen creeps up towards the line of scrimmage, playing almost like a linebacker on the play, and it’s press man coverage on the outside.  

All three Utah cornerbacks get great jams at the line of scrimmage, and USC keeps the tight end in to block, as they play action fake to the running back. Hansen’s assignment on the play is the tight end, and as soon as he sees him stay in to block, he takes off for the QB. The reason Hansen is able to come in unblocked though is because Filipo Mokofisi forces a double team from the left guard and tackle, forcing the tight end to block the defensive end. The good coverage on JuJu Smith-Schuster, where Darnold wanted to go, forces him to hold the ball longer than he wants, and Hansen is able to jar the ball loose from Darnold with a crushing hit.

Now, we all know the call on the field of incomplete pass was upheld by video replay. Honestly, I understand why they upheld the call, as it’s a very close play. However, the picture below shows the ball coming loose prior to Darnold’s arm going forward. Darnold’s arm only goes forward as his body does, and not because he was attempting to throw the ball. It should have been Utah’s football inside the thirty-yard line, but instead, USC keeps the ball and scores a touchdown five plays later.

2.  4th Quarter – 3rd and 9 at USC’s 34-yard line

Utah shows pressure on the 3rd and long, as they show a five-man front, with Pita Taumoepenu as the stand-up defensive end. USC has a tight end in the slot to the right, with stacked receivers out there as well. Utah’s pre snap defense looks like man to man, or even cover three.

Utah brings five defenders at the snap, but runs an a gap twist with Hunter Dimick, with Sunia Tauteoli blitzing up the same gap, and Taumoepenu drops back in to coverage. Justin Davis for USC does a great job and cutting down Tauteoli on the blitz, and the center gets a great last second push on Dimick that interrupts his path to the QB. Darnold wants to throw a post route to Smith-Schuster, but is forced to pull the ball down because of the pressure. As Darnold steps up in the pocket, he steps out of the hands of Tauteoli, and recognizes that Taumoepenu is vacating a large area where his tight end will eventually be.

Taumoepenu eventually floats too far out of his zone coverage assignment and leaves a huge passing lane for Darnold. Taumoepenu needs to be along the hash marks of the field, but is in the middle of the field. The ball still could have been completed had Taumoepenu been in the correct spot, but it’s likely that Darnold doesn’t throw the ball at all if he’s there. It’s an easy pitch and catch for Darnold and Tyler Petite though, and it extends the USC drive.   

3. 4TH Quarter – 3rd and 5 at Utah’s 39-yard line

Utah desperately needs a stop in order to get the ball back, and the Trojans face a 3rd down inside Ute territory, also inside “no man’s land.” They initially line up with trips to the left, and a tight end on the right, but motion the outside receiver in to the backfield. Brian Allen follows the receiver to the middle of the field, indicating Utah is likely playing man coverage.   

The receiver now in the backfield flares out in to the flats at the snap, and this is where things potentially could have gone wrong for Utah. It appears that there may have been a miscommunication when the outside receiver motioned to the backfield, as both Justin Thomas and Brian Allen run out to the flats to cover him. This leaves JuJu Smith-Schuster running free, as Thomas was lined up directly across from him. USC runs a crossing route with Smith-Schuster and the tight end, and luckily for Utah, it appears that Marcus Williams was tasked with double covering Smith-Schuster, and makes a break for him when he sees him running free.

Darnold delivers the ball in a good spot for Smith-Schuster, but Williams just makes a fantastic play and hits Smith-Schuster right as he catches the ball. The hit knocks Smith-Schuster back four yards, and he’s never able to regain his balance. This is the type of play that separates good free safeties from elite ones.

Special Teams

1. 1st Quarter – Kickoff

After Utah goes on a 12 play touchdown drive, in which they ran the ball down USC’s throats, they have all the momentum in the game. That is until Adoree Jackson happens. The opening kickoff of the game by Hayes Hicken went through the end zone, neutralizing the explosive weapon that is Jackson, but this kick off doesn’t make it far enough. Jackson catches the ball three yards deep in the end zone, and Ute fans collectively begin to hold their breath as they watch Jackson take it out of the end zone.

Utah’s kick coverage is good to start out. All players are keeping their lane integrity until they get to about the 25-yard line. The player fourth in from the left on Utah’s coverage gives up his lane when he attempts to swim past the USC blocker by going to the outside of him, and the Utah player next to him is pushed towards the middle of the field by two USC blockers.

Because the Utah defender takes an outside move, it allows one USC blocker to block two Utah defenders, and thus opens up a hole wide enough to drive a dump truck through. Once that happens, it’s over. Hayes Hicken and Brian Allen stand no chance of catching up to Adoree Jackson, and he returns it 103 yards for a touchdown. This is what happens when you kick to Adoree Jackson, and also give up your lane on kick-off coverage. That’s a terrible combination.

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