Utah defense dominates USC in 41-28 victory

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes linebacker Chase Hansen (22) and teammates celebrate a first half interception as the Utah Utes host the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Saturday Oct. 20, 2018.

So that’s the definition of dominance.

A host of guys who shouldn’t be in the backfield, suddenly piling on top of the five-star freshman quarterback one after the other, each able to happily look up and see their teammate rise up and snag an easy interception, thwarting any semblance of momentum.

“The defense was suffocating,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “That was great to see.”

That’s what great defenses do. That’s what Utah does annually. That’s what the Utes did Saturday evening, in this much-hyped biggest game ever in the school’s Pac-12 Conference era. When Britain Covey coughed up a punt late in the third quarter, putting the USC Trojans in striking distance a few yards away from the end zone, the defense said no.

“Our guys came ready to play,” said defensive tackle John Penisini. “We prepped for it. It all worked out in the end.”

Yep. They put on a show. They kept Utah in control of its Pac-12 South destiny. They proved that they’re legit — again — and can handcuff a talented offense like USC’s when needed. A glance at the final score might show otherwise. But the Trojan touchdowns came off a botched interception attempt, former Bingham star Jay Tufele taking a fumble return to the house, the Trojans finally capitalizing on a yet another Utah mistake after a punt block, and a late score in garbage time.

The score lied, for the most part. The No. 9 overall defense and No. 10 scoring defense in the country allowed a dozen points over its average (16 points per game).

But Utah’s defense wasn’t going to let USC believe. Not even after the Utes fell behind 14-0.

The Utes held USC to 205 total yards, its lowest output all year. They locked up JT Daniels, who finished the night 6-of-16 for 89 yards passing, one touchdown and two interceptions. The USC ground game was nonexistent. It was a clinic, spearheaded by linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton, and Utah’s deep defensive line that made life unbearable all night for the Trojans. USC had six three-and-outs, five of which came in the first half.

At one point in the game, USC was 0 for 10 on third downs.

“We’ve always had a lot of confidence in the guys that we have on there,” said Hansen, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles. “I feel like at every position, guys are just balling out.”

He’s not wrong. Utah’s offense is humming along after those early-season of struggles. But this program has always been about defense. Its head coach demands control of the line of scrimmage, demands turnovers, demands havoc plays, demands thumps. The Utes are obliging their coaching staff so far in 2018. And this defense will continue to keep the Utes in the conversation.

Which, in a sense, is nothing new.

“We don’t really have a weakness,” Whittingham said. “You can’t say that this position or this position group is vulnerable. It’s a very talented group. They believe in each other.”