How Utah beat USC: A pig farmer’s redemption, Cole Becker’s heroics, and more Sione Vaki highlights

The Utes’ offense had its best game of the season, while the normally stalwart defense was hit and miss in the win against the Trojans.

(Mark J. Terrill | AP) Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes smiles after Utah defeated Southern California 34-32 on Saturday in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles • Kyle Whittingham summed it up succinctly in his opening remarks postgame Saturday night.

“Pretty good college football game, I would say.”

Maybe if you’re into explosive offenses, back-and-forth momentum swings, compelling rallies, and late-game drama, anyway.

If that is indeed the case, Utah’s 34-32 victory over USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum probably rates a bit higher than kinda sorta all right.

It certainly did for Whittingham.

“It felt really good,” he said. “Probably top-five ever [in my career].”

That’s a well-deserved plaudit, considering the Utes’ latest victory against the powerhouse Trojans was pretty epic. It certainly had players, coaches, and fans buzzing in the aftermath.

Here’s an in-depth look at some of the factors that swung the game in Utah’s favor, and some that contributed to needing to mount a comeback in the first place.

A pig farmer’s redemption

After quarterback Bryson Barnes threw a pick-six with 13:28 remaining, it seemed like the Trojans might be on the verge of turning the tide for good.

And when he later missed Sione Vaki on a short pass that would have picked up a first down and run more clock, it seemed like the Utes might once again be undone by quarterback inadequacies.

Except then he came through. In a big way.

The interception aside, it wound up being an excellent game for Barnes, as he threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns, while running for 57 yards and another score. In effect, he held his own with and ultimately outdueled USC star Caleb Williams, a presumed top-five pick in the 2024 NFL draft.

“They’ve got a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, and so they’re gonna make some [plays] and that’s just the way it is, but we’ve got ourselves a pig farmer at quarterback, so we’re proud of that guy, too,” said Whittingham, in what might be the quote of the season. “We love him, and what a warrior he is.”

Barnes was at his most valuable on what proved to be the game-winning drive. He hung in against pressure, completing a pass to Mikey Matthews while absorbing a hit that would tack on 15 yards for unnecessary roughness. He took off on a scramble to the right for a 3-yard gain that moved the ball into USC territory. And, in what proved to be the play of the game, after scanning the field and finding no one open, he took off once again, finding a huge gap on the right side, and sprinting for a 26-yard gain that put Utah at the 19-yard line with five seconds remaining.

Barnes was not made available postgame by Utah’s PR staff, but his coach and teammates were more than happy to address his heroics.

“It was a dropback pass and it just wasn’t there. He saw the opening in the pass-rush lanes and took it. In fact, he had two big scrambles in that last drive … and that’s just who he is,” said Whittingham. “Bryson Barnes is a fierce competitor and will do whatever it takes to win. No regard for his body, we saw him slam up in there and it was just him improvising. It was him making a play when there wasn’t one there to be made in the throwing lane.”

Running back Ja’Quinden Jackson was more brief but no less effusive.

“Bryson is going to be Bryson,” he said. “He’s a competitor, he’s smart. So I mean, we definitely believe in our guy.”

Cole Becker’s heroics

Utah place kicker Cole Becker, right, watches his game-wining field goal as Southern California cornerback Domani Jackson, left, and safety Calen Bullock also watch during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Placekicking has not been a forté for the Utes in recent years. And with USC known for its high-powered offense, Whittingham made the decision early that Utah needed to be aggressive, eschewing a chip-shot field goal midway through the second quarter in order to go for it on fourth-and-short.

That try failed, but the mentality was set. Which is not to say there was a lack of faith in Becker, the junior transfer from Colorado.

“Obviously, touchdowns are more than twice as valuable as field goals,” Whittingham said. “Except that last one — that was really valuable.”

When the Utes got the ball back with 1:46 to go, trailing 32-31, Becker knew the game might come down to him. He was trying to behave as though it would be any other try.

“I mean, you don’t want to approach it any differently, because then you’re building it up in your mind to be something that it’s not,” he said. “So really, I just take it one practice kick at a time and then go from there. I feel like we executed really well.”

His 38-yard attempt could not have been more perfect.

His coach could not have been more ebullient.

“How about Cole Becker? The game ball goes to Cole Becker,” said Whittingham. “That was a big kick, huge kick, pressure kick, and he handled it like a champ.”

Offense finally flowing

Utah safety Sione Vaki, right, escapes a tackle by Southern California defensive lineman Anthony Lucas during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

With Cam Rising yet to play (and, for that matter, ultimately ruled out from playing at all this season), the Utes’ offense has struggled mightily at times this season. (Like, say, the Baylor, UCLA, and Oregon State games.)

Last week’s insertion of safety Sione Vaki into the offense as a wildcat quarterback/running back gave the Utes a huge jolt vs. Cal.

Somehow, he was even better against the Trojans. He got 14 offensive touches, rushing nine times for 68 yards (7.6 per), while snagging five receptions for 149 yards (including 113 after the catch) and two TDs. His third-quarter score, in which he ran right, then sent a defender flying with a sudden stop and change of direction, was arguably the singular highlight of the game.

Vaki has proven so integral to Utah’s offensive efforts that the two-way star may begin seeing less time at safety.

“We may have to start resting him more defensively because he’s so valuable on offense,” said Whittingham. “We saw some of the moves he makes. He is so quick and accelerates so fast. He changes direction on a dime. He could stop and start on a dime. He’s carrying a big load for us.”

On this occasion, though, he wasn’t doing it alone.

Barnes’ arm gave Utah a credible downfield threat, and his legs obviously proved invaluable, too. Jackson was bruising going up the middle, amassing 117 rushing yards on 26 attempts. Money Parks made a few plays catching the ball in space. Devaughn Vele was a reliable target. Tight end Landen King came free for another TD reception.

“I believe that was our best offensive performance of the year,” said Whittingham. “Our kind of game — rushed for nearly 250 [yards], 480 total, nearly 35 minutes of possession. That’s our blueprint, what you saw tonight.”

Before the USC game, Utah’s ability to get a score when absolutely necessary was never anything near a given. But on this occasion, with the game on the line, you believed it could happen.

“We were just like, ‘Hey, it’s crunch time. We’ve got to dig a little deeper than what we have been. We’ve got to find it,’” said Jackson.

Up-and-down defense

Utah safety Cole Bishop, left, jumps onto a ball fumbled by Southern California running back MarShawn Lloyd during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Utah’s defenders have carried the day often enough this season that it’s hard to begrudge them an off day, especially against a team led by the reigning Heisman winner.

But they were the lesser unit on Saturday, which, again, given the offense’s season-long struggles, was arguably something of a welcome development.

USC easily moved down the field on its opening two drives. The Trojans also ran the ball with ease against a defense that came in leading the nation in rushing defense, amassing 100 yards in the ground in the opening half.

Then after Utah built a 14-point lead in the third quarter, the defense was exploited again, surrendering 15 fourth-quarter points to make things interesting.

“We didn’t start, early in the game, very well defensively in particular. We started well offensively, but defensively, we were a little soft in the run game,” said Whittingham. “Got some momentum, started to control the line of scrimmage, really took over there for a while defensively. Then got a little soft again at the end.”

The Utes were missing star safety Cole Bishop for the first half. And by the end, they’d be missing standout linebacker Landon Barton, who went down with a season-ending injury.

“We all just had to do our jobs,” said defensive end Van Fillinger. “We had Nate Ritchie stepping up [for Bishop] and doing his thing.”

In between those bookended struggles, the defense stiffened up and really began to exert pressure on Williams, with Fillinger, Jonah Elliss, and Connor O’Toole each registering a sack.

It also helped that USC inexplicably stopped running the ball, finishing with 145 yards on the ground after their excellent start.

“A bunch of pressure on the quarterback — had their QB on the run quite a bit and never let him get comfortable back there,” said Whittingham. “I think it was really our defensive front taking over and getting more good pressure on Caleb. Plus we were covering well in the secondary — we had good coverage back there. And so we just got a little bit of rhythm on defense, and I think we got out of three or four drives in a row.”