Inside Utah’s defensive turnaround — and game-saving final stop — against USC
In the end, the defense improved in the second half, yielding 192 yards and two touchdowns over the final two quarters
The past two weeks, Utah’s defense has faced explosive offenses. Both UCLA and USC boast dynamic, athletic and talented playmakers.
The Bruins and Trojans have Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback — Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Caleb Williams — and USC has one of the best receiving corps in the nation.
“It was very helpful to know that our coaches believe in us. They’ve had plenty of experience being in football games themselves and coaching football games. For them to rally behind us and get us going was reassuring because they have all the experience in the world.” — Ute safey R.J. Hubert
The Utes gave up 44 points to the Bruins in a loss. And in the first half against USC, they had surrendered 364 yards and 28 points.
In the end, Utah defeated the Trojans 43-42. The defense improved in the second half, yielding 192 yards, and two touchdowns, over the final two quarters.
What happened at halftime that led to a much better performance?
“We sat them down and told them, ‘Hey, you’re good players. Start playing like you’re capable of.’ That was part of it,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “(Defensive coordinator) Morgan (Scalley) changed up the calls a little bit and simplified things a little. He called some very timely blitzes in the second half that paid off. And our offense possessing the ball — we made 30 first downs — that’s huge because you’ve got the ball and they don’t.”
“R.J. Hubert walked around the locker room and told all the guys, ‘We’ve got to stay together and play together.’ That was something that we all looked at each other and echoed the same thing,” he said. “This is going to come down to how hard we fight until the end. That’s what we did and we ended up coming out victorious.”
USC entered the game leading the nation in sacks, but recorded zero against Utah. But the Utes’ defense had four sacks, including three in the second half.
One of those sacks was by Phillips, although he revealed Monday that he wasn’t supposed to be in that position. Once again, Hubert came to the rescue.
Phillips lined up at nickel back. He believed he was assigned to blitz on a first-and-10 play at the USC 46-yard line.
“I thought that I was supposed to be blitzing and I was supposed to be in man coverage,” Phillips said. “Luckily, R.J. Hubert had my back. I ended up blitzing and getting to the quarterback and it just so happened to be a sack. I went to the sideline and I took some congratulations and a little bit of butt-ripping as well. It was some of both. Sometimes, that happens.”
Hubert noticed that not all the receivers were being covered on that play — he was supposed to be the safety over the top of the coverage — so he made an adjustment.
“Everyone was covered up except for the guy Clark was on. Then Clark started creeping down into the box,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Oh no, what’s happening?’ I realized that this guy needed to be covered up. So I abandoned post to cover his responsibility. Thank goodness, he got home.”
Whittingham said at halftime the coaching staff challenged the defensive line to increase the pressure on the quarterback. That played a big role in slowing down the Trojans in the second half.
Phillips said Scalley’s adjustments helped. At the same time, Phillips said the defense should have played better in the opening two quarters.
“He continued to put us in good positions. I can’t even say that he didn’t put us in good positions in the first half. We just didn’t make the plays,” he said. “I feel like in the second half we did more of that, just trusting the system and we ended up making more plays.”
Even after Utah earned its first lead of the night with 48 seconds remaining in the game after Cam Rising’s touchdown and subsequent two-point conversion, the defense had to make one final stop to preserve the win.
USC needed to get into Utes territory for a potential game-winning field goal.
On third-and-15, JaTravis Broughton intercepted a pass by Caleb Williams but the officials called pass interference on Phillips.
Given a second chance, the Trojans reached their 40-yard line. But on the final play from scrimmage, Williams’ deep pass was broken up by Hubert as time expired.
“That last play, I was on our own 45. It was keeping everything in front of me; don’t let them get into field goal position,” Hubert said. “I saw them split out. I knew that (Williams) was going to heave it deep. I had plenty of space, 35-40 yards from scrimmage. Thank goodness, (defensive lineman) Jonah Elliss put a great move on the (offensive) tackle. He put pressure on the quarterback right away.
“He kept pursuing him and the quarterback had to make a throw off-balance, and earlier than he wanted to. That made our job in the secondary much easier. At that point, once I saw him wind up, I made a mad dash to where he was throwing. I jumped up and I was able to bat it down.”
Linebacker Karene Reid acknowledged it was a rough night at times for the defense against USC.
“They’re team is full of explosive players. We knew that it was going to be a challenge for us. They’ve got to play us for four quarters. … We just played until the clock said zero,” he said. “It shows that we play until the end. I’m proud of our guys.”
Still, that successful result may not have happened without some intervention by coaches and players at halftime.
“When you get down like that and it looks like someone’s fault in particular, it’s easy to start turning on each other. That’s what a good team will do to you. And if you’re not a good team yourself, you’ll fall apart and start pointing fingers and you won’t be united as one,” Hubert said. “So what I was saying was, ‘Look, some of us have made mistakes already. We might make mistakes in the next half. But it’s important now more than ever to stick together as a unit.’ That’s what makes a team rather than a group of players — just sticking together when things get tough.”
The coaches instilled confidence in the defense — and that manifested itself in the second half.
“It was very helpful to know that our coaches believe in us. They’ve had plenty of experience being in football games themselves and coaching football games,” Hubert said. “For them to rally behind us and get us going was reassuring because they have all the experience in the world. They’ve come back from games when they’ve been down at halftime. For them to be like, ‘All right, these are the adjustments we need to make and we can get it done’ was very meaningful to us.”