USC vs Utah 2016: Who Were the Studs and Duds?

Sep 23, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold (14) rushes against the Utah Utes during the second half at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For a while, USC vs Utah had the look of a turnaround game for the Trojans. Instead, it only turned into another nightmare at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

USC’s 2016 season continues to spiral out of control as the Trojans fell to 1-3 in Clay Helton’s first year as the permanent Trojan head coach.

Utah got their revenge by stunning USC with a comeback at home, a year after being routed by the Trojans at the Coliseum.

Here’s a look at who stood out in the 31-27 loss for all the right reasons and all the wrong reasons:

Who were the studs?

Justin Davis:
The senior running back was USC’s most potent offensive weapon.

Davis ran for 126 yards and a touchdown, which he set up with a 50-yard jaunt. While the Trojan offensive line did a good job giving him opportunities, it was the way Davis hit the hole, slicing through the Utah defense with purpose that set him apart.

He averaged 12.6 yards per carry. Why he only had ten carries is a mystery.

Adoree’ Jackson:
Jackson scored half as many touchdowns as USC’s offense when he blew through the kick coverage following Utah’s first touchdown to put the contest back at level in the first quarter.

The end of the game wasn’t kind to the junior cornerback as he was beaten on the game-winning touchdown. Despite that Jackson did far more good than bad against the Utes. On top of the kick return, he recovered a fumble and disrupted several long plays to Tim Patrick.

Kyle Whittingham:
Utah’s head coach has made a habit of winning close games, and he showed it by out-coaching Clay Helton and his staff in the closing minutes of the game. His decision to go for two late fourth downs proved wise.

Most impressivebly, Whittingham didn’t let his team slip even as they went behind by 14 points in the third quarter. They outscored the Trojans 21-3 from that point on.

Quarterbacks:
Making his first start, Sam Darnold was a vision, sparking the USC offense just as the coaching staff hoped he would when he took Max Browne’s place on Monday. Darnold threw for 253 yards and ran for 41 yards and a touchdown. Though he lost a fumble, his ability to move the Trojans with quick, sharp passing and running ability was clear.

Troy Williams, the Narbonne-product, was immense on the other side of the equation against the Trojans, finishing with 270 yards passing and two touchdowns, including the game winner from 18 yards out to Patrick.

Sep 23, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton prior to a NCAA football game against the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Who were the duds?

Turnovers:
There are a lot of reasons USC lost to the Utes. The first is turnovers.

Justin Davis, Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones II each lost a fumble for the Trojans in the first half, giveaways that were particularly devastating because USC’s offense appeared dominant before each turnover.

Had USC come away with any form of points on those four drives the scoreline would look different.

Penalties:
Having left the turnovers behind in the first half, the penalty bug struck the Trojans in the second half. As was the case against Stanford, it was the small penalties which did the most damage, like a false start setting USC back on a key drive to end the third quarter which ended in a field goal instead of a touchdown.

Of course it wasn’t just small moments of lost discipline which sank the Trojans. A needless pass interference penalty against Iman Marshall extended the Utes’ game-winning drive on third down.

Clay Helton:
Helton cannot seem to escape questions about his fourth quarter punting decisions. For the second straight game he faced criticism for opting to punt the ball in enemy territory rather than attempt a fourth-and-short.

This week it was from the Utah 37-yard line with over five minutes left in the game with the Trojans clinging to a three-point lead. Helton wanted to pin the Utes deep and trusted his defense to stop them from there.

The problem was, the Trojan defense had given up touchdowns on the previous two drives and had been struggling to slow the Ute attack the whole game. Trusting them was a mistake.

Clancy Pendergast:
All the goodwill Pendergast may have returned to USC is fading fast. Against Alabama, the Trojan defense performed admirably but gave up big plays to contribute to a lopsided scoreline. There were positives to take still.

Against Stanford, the cracks began to show as Christian McCaffrey pounded the USC defense into the dirt. Still, he is a Heisman candidate and it could be passed off to some degree.

Against Utah, however, it became clear very quickly that Pendergast’s defense was not equipped to slow even the new-look Utes.

USC’s front never got push, whether defending the run or the pass. The Utes ran at will against a defense too often set in a nickel package. Pressure on the quarterback was non-existent and Pendergast’s penchant for eschewing substitutions only added to the troubles.

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