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Offense, defense click as Utah takes down USC, 41-28

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah took a big step toward its pursuit of a Pac-12 South championship Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Utes defeated USC 41-28 to move into a tie for the division lead, securing a tiebreaker over the Trojans in the process.

“We’re in the driver’s seat, and it’s good to know,” said wide receiver Britain Covey. “I mean, if you look at it and say we’ve got to win here on out, it’s a little overwhelming. So you just take it game by game.”

Quarterback Tyler Huntley completed 22 of 29 passes for 341 yards and four touchdowns in a game where Utah racked up 541 yards of total offense. Running back Zack Moss added 136 yards rushing, and nine receivers caught passes.

“I think we had a great game plan coming in. You could see we were really comfortable with what we’re doing,” Covey said. “And, man, shout out to Tyler. He played a heck of a game. I mean, he made some plays that if we don’t make, it’s a really close game.”

The defense, led by 11 tackles from linebacker Chase Hansen, held USC to only 205 yards. The Utes made seven stops behind the line of scrimmage and had five pass breakups. They intercepted two passes and stopped the Trojans on their first 10 third-down situations.

“We try and do what we do,” Hansen said.

Utah (5-2, 3-2) topped the 40-point mark for the third straight game, something the Utes had not done since 2010. Contributions were plentiful as they came from behind to topple the Trojans (4-3, 3-2).

“I’m proud of our guys, great effort. Players, assistant coaches did a great job preparing for this game and working hard all week long and we came out and handled adversity,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.

Utah didn’t get off to a good start. In fact, things got quite ugly for the Utes. They fell into a 14-0 hole just over nine minutes into the game.

USC’s first score followed a loss on downs by Utah near midfield. Three plays later, J.T. Daniels put the Trojans on the board with a 34-yard touchdown throw to Michael Pittman. The pass was complete despite tight coverage by safety Marquise Blair and cornerback Julian Blackmon.

On the ensuing possession, Utah turned the ball over on a fumble by Huntley. Linebacker John Houston Jr. knocked the ball loose and defensive tackle Jay Tufele, a Bingham High alumnus, scooped it up and ran 48 yards for a touchdown.

Michael Brown added his second PAT to make it 14-0 for USC with 5:58 left in the first quarter.

It took Utah just 53 seconds to respond. That’s when Huntley and Covey teamed on a 46-yard scoring strike to cut the deficit in half.

Covey said that before every game Whittingham notes that there will be some adversity at some point.

“The key is when you get hit with that, that you don’t freak out,” Covey said. “And you just recognize it for what it is.”

After an exchange of punts, the Utes recorded a takeaway of their own. Hansen intercepted Daniels on the USC 20. Nickelback Javelin Guidry tipped the ball, and Hansen caught it.

Utah wound up getting a 33-yard field goal by Matt Gay out of the deal early in the second quarter.

Trailing 14-10, the Utes forced USC to punt for the fourth time before embarking on a sustained scoring drive that covered 67 yards on 11 plays. Huntley capped things off with a 3-yard touchdown run as Utah took its first lead. Gay followed with the extra point as the Utes pulled in front 17-14 with 7:27 to go in the half.

The lone points scored over the balance of the second quarter came on a 30-yard field goal by Gay as time expired.

Utah had more than a 20-14 lead at the break. The Utes held significant advantages in first downs (15-4) and total yards (255-99). USC was 0-for-7 on third down and limited Daniels, the highly touted freshman, to just 5-of-12 passing for 88 yards over the first two quarters.

Utah’s 20-14 halftime lead swelled quickly in the third quarter. Huntley threw touchdown passes to Solomon Enis (27 yards) and Demari Simpkins (11 yards) to cap the first two possessions by the Utes. The drives increased the statistical margins to 435-115 in yards and 22-5 in first downs.

Utah also managed to take significant time off the clock, nearly 11 minutes in total in pulling ahead 34-14.

“It’s just a matter of us executing,” Huntley said.

The defense had the final say in the third quarter. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson picked off Daniels near the goal line on the last play to thwart a scoring opportunity for USC.

The Trojans, though, soon had a reversal of fortune. They blocked a punt by Mitch Wishnowsky and cashed in shortly thereafter. Pittman deflected the kick and Devon Williams recovered it on the Utah 9. On the ensuing series, USC’s Matt Fink, in place of the injured Daniels, threw a 3-yard TD pass to Tyler Petite.

The Utes fired back less than three minutes later. An 11-yard throw from Huntley to tight end Jake Jackson, plus another kick from Gay, made it 41-21with 8:55 to go.

However, USC posted the last points in the game, scoring off a 12-yard touchdown run by Vavae Malepeai and PAT from Brown with 3:05 left to play.

It was far too little, far too late.

“Obviously not our best night. All the credit goes to Utah,” said USC coach Clay Helton. “I thought they put a good game plan together and played better than us.”

The Utes return to action Friday night at UCLA.