Monson: Utah rolls, USC stinks and the Pac- 12 South is now open for the Utes

(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.

It’s an old standard of college football, one that has some exceptions to it, but not many: If a team can’t run the ball, it can’t win.

USC couldn’t run the ball on Utah. And it had no chance in heaven or hell of winning.

Utah could run the ball on USC. And it did win, by the count of 41-28. Oh, and it threw the ball all over the Trojans, too.

On a beautiful autumn Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium made more beautiful for the Utes by the outcome, Utah edged itself into the fast lane, intent on eventually passing every one of the other division teams on the freeway to the Pac-12’s South title.

That move started in earnest against the Trojans, after the Utes dropped their first two conference games and now have won three straight, all in impressive manner. Fitting it was that such a key game in this year’s race came against the South’s marquee program, a team that generations of Pac-12 fans and college football observers around the country have long considered one of the nation’s biggest brands.

That brand sagged and suffered and suffocated on Saturday night.

For the visitors in the familiar cardinal-and-gold helmets, with all due respect, this game featured one of the strangest offensive game-plans ever devised. It wasn’t as though they had much choice.

Since the Trojans couldn’t gain anything on the ground — 11 rushing yards in the first half, 62 in the second — they resorted to having freshman quarterback JT Daniels and his replacement Matt Fink impersonate veteran NBA ref Ron Garretson, lofting up jump ball after jump ball. The QBs repeatedly chucked the ball high, hoping that one of USC’s gifted receivers could elevate and grab it.

That was about it. Heave and hope — or wait for the Utes to make a boneheaded mistake and capitalize on that.

Strange thing was, early on that plan worked.

The Trojans took a 14-zip lead in the first quarter on a 34-yard TD bloop from Daniels to Michael Pittman, who soared, sandwiched between Utah defensive backs Marquise Blair and Julian Blackmon, for a phenomenal catch.

Next, USC defensive lineman Jay Tufele, who played at Bingham High, picked up a Tyler Huntley fumble and rumbled 48 yards for another touchdown.

And that, along with a couple of meaningless fourth-quarter touchdowns, was it for the Trojans scoring. The disparity in total offensive yards went like this: Utes 541, USC 205.

Utah’s defense did what Utah’s defenses do — crush the run, and then mop everything else up accordingly.

“It was fun,” senior linebacker Chase Hansen said. “... Guys are making plays.”

As USC struggled to pick up yardage, somewhere Trojan coaches of the past — guys like John McKay and John Robinson — had to be shrinking away in shame. Holes to run through were scarce, the failing of an offensive line much better at pass blocking than road grading. But even that better skill never really clicked in any consistent way.

Couldn’t run, couldn’t pass.

Problem was, the Trojans could think of no other way to try to advance the ball, except for two — punt it and have Britain Covey fumble and block it on a Mitch Wishnowski punt, both in the red zone. That’s what happened near the end of the third quarter and early in the fourth. USC got one touchdown out of those. A subsequent 13-play Trojan scoring drive was like putting a potted plant on a clogged toilet, a flower whose fragrance couldn’t mask the stink.

Utah’s offense, throughout, achieved similar results to what it did against Stanford and Arizona. Zack Moss plowed for 136 rushing yards. And Huntley passed for 341 yards and four touchdowns. He ran for another score.

“Tyler played a heckuva game,” Covey said.

After falling behind by the two unorthodox TDs, the Utes offense rolled every way imaginable — touchdowns and field goals galore. The fourth quarter, other than Utah’s mistakes, was essentially a party.

Beating USC is nothing new to the Utes, but it is still uniquely rewarding for a relative neophyte in the Pac-12, especially this season. Utah has now positioned itself as a decent bet to win the South and qualify for the league’s championship game, something it has never done.

“We’re in the driver’s seat,” Covey said.

Much work remains — and there was just enough for Kyle Whittingham to complain about here, demanding more focus from his team — but if the Utes continue to play the way they have in recent weeks, that road is 50 miles of open highway.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.