Ugly football can be a beautiful thing for USC in the second half of its schedule.
The Trojans' 19-3 win over Utah wasn't pretty. Field goals, walk-ons and defense, defense and more defense are the ingredients for a finish that may not be a masterpiece for USC, but that does give the Trojans a chance to finish this rocky season strong.
Kicker Andre Heidari notched four field goals Saturday, doubling the amount of touchdowns USC has scored in the last two weeks.
But interim head coach Ed Orgeron dismissed the touchdown drought in his postgame press conference.
"Our goal today was to win the game as a team, no matter what it took," he said per USCTrojans.com.
While the Trojans offense would certainly like to see the end zone more frequently, the premium on points won't hurt USC if it can continue dominating on the other side of the ball.
How will USC finish in its final five games?
For the second time, in as many games, the USC defense was stellar. The Trojans bounced back from surrendering 93 combined points against Arizona and Arizona State to give up just 17 to Notre Dame and Utah. USC effectively took the wind of Utah's sails by creating four turnovers—a positive reversal in course for the defense after it gained just nine takeaways in its previous seven outings.
For as much as the Trojans’ depth issues have been addressed—though not by Orgeron, who said it was no excuse—the roster is still brimming with talent. That’s particularly true in the defensive front, which was the catalyst of USC’s win.
Utah could muster just 71 yards on the ground, and the consistent pass rush had quarterbacks Travis Wilson and Adam Schulz frazzled.
J.R. Tavai and Leonard Williams were lights-out and will need to continue anchoring the entire USC game plan going forward.
The depth concern is much more obvious among the pass-catchers.
With every scholarship tight end and star wide receiver Marqise Lee inactive, a passing game that was less-than-explosive previously is now largely patchwork. And that invites a particular kind of strategy.
Utah employed a defensive scheme USC can expect to see every week for the remainder of the campaign, selling out on the run and inviting the pass.
Sophomore Tre Madden returned early from a hip injury and mounted the most consistent rushing attack with 60 yards.
Senior Silas Redd’s zero-yard day on 10 carries was indicative of the aggressive manner in which Utah focused on the USC ground game. Opponents will continue to with this strategy until the Trojans start really hurting them with the pass.
Taking the air out of the ball with a pounding ground game looks less likely for USC, and that promises to force the Trojans out of their comfort zone.
Quarterback Cody Kessler responded nicely Saturday with 21 of 32 completions for 230 yards and a touchdown. That’s about as much as USC can ask from its sophomore quarterback.
Kessler didn't make mistakes and spread the ball among several, in a diverse group of receivers, no easy feat under the circumstances. But big plays, like his 30-yard connection with Nelson Agholor for the game's lone touchdown, will be few and far between.
The Trojans will need more of them, though. The injury bug contributing to the offensive ugliness hasn't completely spared the Trojans defense, so putting the onus exclusively on one side of the ball won't be a long-term solution.
Freshman safety Su'a Cravens was carted away Saturday after suffering a groin strain which will need to be monitored. Cravens is one of the primary playmakers in the USC secondary and responsible for one of three interceptions on the game.
With these issues, Orgeron's words, Saturday, ring particularly true.
"We put 11 on the field and doesn't matter [who they are]," he said.
Similarly, how USC wins is a lot less important than if it wins.