Utes overcome slow start to dominate USC 41-28 and move into a tie for first place in the Pac-12 South

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) USC Trojans safety Marvell Tell III (7) strips the ball from Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) as the Utah Utes host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Oct. 20, 2018.

The football sailed through the air, with Utah defensive backs Marquise Blair and Julian Blackmon in perfect position for an interception. USC receiver Michael Pittman Jr. somehow reached above them and caught the ball for a Trojan touchdown in Saturday night’s first quarter.

That seemed like a bad sign for Utah, and so did USC’s defensive score soon afterward.

The Utes were not done, though. Oh, no. Utah scored the game’s next 34 points, surging to a 41-28 victory and moving into a tie for the Pac-12 South lead.

“We’re in the driver’s seat,” receiver Britain Covey said, “and it’s good to know.”

Covey’s qualifier is that four more wins in a row may be required to win the title. But judging by Utah’s performance against the Trojans, such a closing run hardly seems unreasonable.

Asked to describe his outlook when USC went ahead by two touchdowns, Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley said intently, “We’re not losin’.”

No kidding. Homecoming at Rice-Eccles Stadium became an overwhelming showcase for the home team. The Utes (5-2, 3-2 Pac-12) posted 541 total yards to 205 for USC (4-3, 3-2), thanks partly to Huntley’s phenomenal showing. The junior tied career highs with 341 yards passing and four touchdowns.

In the last three games, all conference victories, Huntley has gone 53 of 69 for 741 yards and seven TDs with one interception and the Utes have scored 40-plus points each time.

USC’s short touchdown drive after a blocked punt cut the lead to 34-21 early in the third quarter. The Utes answered with Huntley’s fourth TD pass, an 11-yarder to tight end Jake Jackson, to regain control. Zack Moss, who finished with 136 yards rushing after a slow start, helped the Utes kill the clock after USC’s last score.

USC’s visits in 2014 and ’16 ended in dramatic, last-minute losses for the Trojans. This was different, a case of pure domination by Utah. Coach Kyle Whittingham labeled his defense’s effort “suffocating,” and that was a good description.

The Utes stuffed the run, pressured freshman quarterback JT Daniels and allowed only one genuine drive for a touchdown when the outcome was in question.

“The secondary killed it,” said linebacker Chase Hansen.

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley used far more zone coverage than usual, surprising the Trojans.

“All the credit goes to Utah,” said USC coach Clay Helton.

An adventurous first half ended with the Utes leading 20-14, having come from 14-0 behind. From a Ute perspective, the half included two fourth-down gambles (one successful), a fumble that USC turned into a touchdown (scored by Bingham High product Jay Tufele), the long touchdown pass allowed by Blair and Blackmon, an even longer pass play for a touchdown to Covey and an interception by Hansen, leading to a field goal.

Utah gave up four sacks in the half, but the offense otherwise hummed behind Huntley, who passed for 197 yards to extend the upward trend for his group.

“It’s been fun to watch,” offensive coordinator Troy Taylor said in the buildup to Saturday’s game. “They’ve created some confidence, and it’s a powerful thing.”

The Trojans are the latest witnesses.

So the Utes are temporarily in command of the Pac-12 South race, with the qualifier that USC’s remaining schedule is more favorable. The Trojans have Arizona State, Oregon State, California and UCLA ahead.

Utah’s opponents are UCLA, ASU, No. 12 Oregon and Colorado. Then again, Oregon lost Saturday at Washington State.

And the Utes hardly could have asked for a better opportunity to win the South as of late October, after losing to Washington and Washington State in September.