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Utah football’s win at USC was an exorcism. This is how the Utes did it and what comes next.

From a flea-flicker that shouldn’t have happened to a defensive effort that was better than the stats suggest, an analysis of the Utes’ historic win at the Coliseum

Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele, left, makes a touchdown catch past Southern California cornerback Chris Steele (8) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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Los Angeles • In the waning minutes of the fourth quarter Saturday night at the LA Coliseum, several thousand Utah football fans made their way to the first few rows behind the Utes bench.

As those waning minutes turned to waning seconds, those fans got louder. As those waning seconds expired, it became clear that this was something of an exorcism.

Of the last two weeks of heartache in the wake of Aaron Lowe’s death, of years of being unable to solve USC at the LA Coliseum.

This one, a 42-26 win in which the Utes dominated the middle two quarters, didn’t feel like just another October matchup. This, given everything that has gone on, felt like something more.

That flea-flicker shouldn’t have been a flea-flicker

Before we dissect this, it should be made clear that Cam Rising’s 37-yard flea-flicker touchdown pass to Devaughn Vele late in the first half was the beginning of the end. It put Utah up, 21-10, with 10 seconds until halftime. The Utes got the ball out of halftime, scored on its first two drives out of the locker room, and that was that.

Follow me here: Third-and-11 from the USC 47-yard line, Utah calls a timeout. Out of the timeout, Cam Rising to TJ Pledger over the middle for 10 yards, down to the 37. The Utes lineup to go for it on fourth-and-1, timeout USC.

Rising said postgame that on that fourth-and-1, he heard the call in his helmet, read the wrong wristband, and believed the call to be the flea-flicker. The actual call was a run, followed by a spike, and presumably a field goal attempt, but during the timeout, Rising liked the mistaken call. He, Kyle Whittingham, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig decided to stick with the flea-flicker.

Once play resumed, Rising handed off to Pledger, who pitched it back to Rising, who hit Vele in stride after he beat his defender and outran two others for the score with 10 seconds left and a 21-10 halftime lead.

At first, that’s a miscommunication, but after that, it was a gutsy call by Whittingham and Ludwig to roll with it.

“That was a huge momentum play,” Whittingham said. “Getting that momentum coming into halftime was gigantic, and I wish we could take credit for it, but that’s Cam Rising misreading the wristband and us finding out about it, and then sticking with it because it seemed like the right thing to do.”

The defense giving up 493 yards belies the job it did

Whittingham will not be happy with some of the raw numbers his defense produced against a USC offense that can strike huge, not to mention quickly.

The Utes gave up 493 yards of total offense, 401 coming through the air via Kedon Slovis. The Trojans had nine “big plays,” through the air, which are defined as 15 yards or more, totaling 230 yards.

Within that, though, only three of those plays came in the middle two quarters, totaling 66 yards. Utah’s defense collectively stiffened after a bend-but-don’t break first 15-20 minutes of action, the defensive line started getting to Slovis, and while Trojans star wide receiver Drake London had 16 catches (on 20 targets) for 162 yards, there wasn’t much to write home about after his 20-yard second-quarter touchdown, which featured him hurdling a Utes defender at the goal line.

The raw numbers are the raw numbers, but anyone watching that game would have to agree that Utah got the better of it for the majority of the first two-plus, if not the first three quarters. When the outcome of this game was in doubt, Utah’s defense stepped up.

Welcome back, Tavion Thomas

If you merely listen to Whittingham speak whenever Tavion Thomas is mentioned, it is clear that he believes Thomas is talented, while bringing certain size and bruising elements to Utah’s rushing attack. Thomas has had ball security issues, but Whittingham thinks enough of the Independence Community College transfer to keep going back to him.

Saturday was Thomas’s best game yet, with 16 carries for 113 yards and a 43-yard touchdown run to open the second half, but most importantly, Thomas did not fumble.

That 43-yard touchdown run, which appeared to be a simple up-the-middle run call, was an inexcusable piece of defense by USC. Thomas took the handoff, got through the first level, and the Red Sea parted. One diving Trojans defender clipped his lower leg, but that was it. He was gone.

On and on this Utah running backs situation goes. First, it was T.J. Pledger with the juice, then it was Thomas, then it was Micah Bernard, then it was Pledger coming out of the Washington State game two weeks ago, now it appears to be Thomas again.

I think I’ve been pretty consistent on this: If Thomas can hang on to the ball, he is the guy. Too much size, too much shiftiness, too hard to bring down, although Bernard, when healthy, is clearly the best pass-catching option among the group.

Clark Phillips III was very good

Much is expected of Phillips III, which has everything to do with the fact he is the highest-rated recruit in the history of the program, but let’s remember, he is still quite young, not to mention inexperienced. He is a second-year freshman, but Saturday marked just the 10th game of his career.

That said, Saturday was Phillips III’s best game as a collegian. He had nine tackles, eight of them solo, and a team-high three pass breakups while having to deal with London all night.

“Clark’s still a true freshman, but that Drake London kid is, I think, is maybe the best receiver in the country, so that’s a big challenge,” Whittingham said. “Clark drew that coverage most of the night, with no help. Drake had a heck of a game, but we did other things to counteract that.”

All-Pac-12 cornerback JT Broughton is done for the season due to injury, so Phillips III is the elder statesman of the group with those 10 career games under his belt. It is a mortal lock that Phillips III will continue to draw the opposing team’s best receiver.

Another difficult week lies ahead

Utah picked up a critical Pac-12 win on Saturday. One of two conference unbeatens, it will face the other conference unbeaten, Arizona State, Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium (8 p.m., ESPN). The winner will be alone atop the Pac-12 South. In between, the team will fly to Texas on Monday morning for Aaron Lowe’s funeral in the afternoon, then fly home the same day.

What do you say to that?

There is still a football season to play, but even with a win over USC, even with everything still to play for, that still feels trivial given what’s going on.

This program will help bury a second player in nine months on Monday. Not to say that Ty Jordan’s death was not difficult, because it was for a lot of reasons, but Lowe’s death is a different situation because it is a homicide, with a suspect in custody, and criminal proceedings pending.

The Utes will have some closure on Monday, but Lowe’s death is going to hang over this program for at least the rest of this fall. How does that affect this group going forward?

The Utes took the emotion, the anger, the frustration, and bludgeoned USC with it. Is it capable of doing the same to the Sun Devils after what will surely be a difficult, unorthodox week?

Yes, Utah is capable, but in fairness, it is a tough ask. Arizona State is not USC. The Sun Devils are a lot better than what the Trojans produced on Saturday.

Other stuff on my mind

• Ludwig should let his hair down more and allow Rising to operate. Through roughly 10 quarters with Rising at quarterback, Utah’s offense looks at its best when it goes uptempo. For the season, he has completed 65.9% of his passes for 625 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions.

• Devaughn Vele catching four passes for 84 yards and the flea-flicker touchdown is a big deal. Utah has been waiting for Vele to bust loose.

• Brant Kuithe scored an 11-yard rushing touchdown on a jet sweep. Keep doing that, using Kuithe’s versatility.

• Jordan Noyes won a bye week kicking competition vs. struggling All-Pac-12 kicker Jadon Redding. Noyes was 6-for-6 on extra point attempts vs. USC. He did not attempt a field goal.

• It’s going to be a long fall at USC. The Trojans are playing for nothing more than bowl qualification at this point, and interim head coach Donte Williams has no chance of being named the permanent replacement for Clay Helton.

• Utah scored four touchdowns in four trips inside the red zone. Whittingham does not count field goals as red zone wins, only touchdowns.

• The game Dalton Kincaid played was underrated. Three catches for 40 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown, but also a handful of terrific blocks on the outside, specifically on the Kuithe touchdown on the jet sweep.

• After Lowe’s death, this win, and finally getting one at USC, Utah fans should be free to have a good laugh, a good cry, or both.

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