USC fights through miscues to down No. 19 Colorado 31-20

October 13, 2018
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USC entered Saturday night's game against No. 19 Colorado with something to prove. Players said as much throughout the week's practices; coming off a 24-20 win over an abysmal Arizona team with a hobbled Khalil Tate, the Trojans knew they had to become more consistent moving forward.

Although imperfect, USC's 31-20 victory over the Buffaloes made a statement, as the team took the lead in the Pac-12 South ahead of next week's road bout with Utah.  

The defense was magnificent, limiting the Colorado offense to 265 total yards. Steven Montez, who came into the game ranked in the top 15 in both completion percentage and yards per attempt, connected on just 26 of 47 passes for 170 yards and an interception.

USC was flying to the ball at all levels and wrapping up strong on tackles. The Trojans showcased surprising discipline against an offense predicated on movement and misdirection, navigating around blockers on screens and maintaining their assignments on trick plays.

"It just felt like we were playing in their backfield the entire night, whether it was the run game or pass game," said head coach Clay Helton after the game. "[Montez] had a night where he was having to get off his spot consistently, and it interrupted his timing."

The highlight was redshirt senior cornerback Ajene Harris' third quarter pick-six. Montez threw high on a screen pass for receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., who tipped it in the air. Harris bobbled the ball a few times, but by the time he controlled it, he had a leisurely walk into the end zone.

"I kept seeing them trying to throw underneath routes to #2 [Shenault], and I just tried to jump the pass and secure it," said Harris. "It also comes down to preparation and trusting the defense."

The biggest blemish was Shenault's 49-yard touchdown run off a direct snap in the second quarter. You can't always prevent a player of Shenault's caliber from making big plays, but USC tightened up after the score.

Senior linebacker Porter Gustin again showed how integral he is to the team, racking up 6 total tackles and 1.5 sacks, bringing his total to 7 on the year, best in the Pac-12. Freshman linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV, stepping in for the injured Cam Smith, shined in his first start. He led the team in tackles with 9 despite leaving the game early in the third quarter with concussion-like symptoms.

"I got a little dizzy there but I'm well." said Gaoteote. "After talking to the trainers I should be ready to go for next week."

Wide receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns sparked a Trojan offense that opened the game as if it was still on its bye week.After the offense as a whole gained just 55 yards in the first quarter, the two receivers dominated the second frame, combining for 187 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Vaughns opened USC's scoring with a 27-yard touchdown with about 10 minutes left in the quarter. The redshirt sophomore burned cornerback Chris Miller with a hitch-and-go route down the right sideline, and freshman quarterback JT Daniels had an easy throw.

Pittman proceeded to take over the game, starting with a 65-yard touchdown with three and a half minutes left in the half. Daniels recognized that Colorado (for some reason) had put linebacker Davion Taylor in one-on-one man coverage with Pittman, and bombed it deep. Pittman came back to meet the underthrown pass, and skipped away from Taylor's attempted shoelace tackle for the go-ahead score.

Pittman came back on the next possession with a crucial 39-yard reception through double coverage to put USC inside Colorado's 10-yard line. Pittman high-pointed the ball perfectly, leapt, and extended the entirety of his 6-3 frame to come down with a ball that easily could have been intercepted with imperfect timing.

Two plays later, Pittman was again in the end zone on a 9-yard slant. Daniels' play fake made linebacker Nate Landman step up, clearing the middle of the field for Pittman.

Pittman has risen to the occasion in each of the three games he's played against Colorado as a Trojan, and he couldn't resist a slight jab when asked about his success against the Buffaloes.

"To my understanding, Colorado has never beaten SC," he said with a smile. "So that's where it comes from. They can't beat us, so I'm not going to be the guy who lets them beat us."

The scores were examples of Daniels' improving recognition of defenses, but the devlopment was starkly contrasted in this game. Daniels threw two ugly interceptions in the first quarter, both coming because he didn't recognize a defender that could make a play on the ball.

The first snap of the game resulted in an interception as Daniels didn't see linebacker Drew Lewis lurking underneath redshirt sophomore receiver Velus Jones Jr.'s crossing route, and a slightly underthrown ball gave Lewis the opportunity to make the play.

Later, Daniels didn't look off safety Evan Worthington, who baited Daniels into a deep pass to freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown down the right sideline. The pass hung in the air a sliver too long, and Worthington covered the ground to make the play.

Daniels also missed open receivers deep downfield on a number of occasions that would have increased the lead, probably in one play. The flashes of greatness are there, but Daniels still needs to build some experience and chemistry with his receivers before he can reach his full potential.

"It wasn't all the way perfect, but he was really putting the ball into the right people after the early two mistakes," Helton said of Daniels, who completed 17 of 34 passes for 272 yards, along with the 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. "There's still some things we have to work on, we have to be able to look a safety off and work the other side, not get fooled... But he settled in real nice. He found the one-on-one matchups and he believed in his guys. That's what I loved."

The game was not as close as its final score; Colorado got a late touchdown because of a few questionable penalties called on USC, which was up 28-7 at one point in the fourth quarter. The Trojans paid for their non-chalance late in the game, though; after failing to recover Colorado's onside kick with three and a half minutes left, Gustin injured his right ankle. He was carted to the locker room after the game and hopped inside, unable to put any weight on his right leg.

This is what happens when you don't close out games; besides allowing teams back into contests they have no business in, you put your best players at risk for injury. This was undoubtedly a big win for USC, probably its best performance to date, but that says more about its inconsistency this season than its prowess against the Buffaloes.

The Trojans showed they have the ability to be great Saturday, but we already knew about their talent. The final step in becoming a great team is discipline; USC demonstrated improvement in this area against Colorado, but it still has a ways to go.

 
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