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Bill Plaschke: On improbable night, Trojans live up to their motto and silence critics

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 9/21/2019 By Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times

a group of football players on a field: The USC bench celebrates after the Trojans blocked a field goal attempt by Utah in the first quarter at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.

The USC bench celebrates after the Trojans blocked a field goal attempt by Utah in the first quarter at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.
© Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS

LOS ANGELES_The starting quarterback was flattened. The head coach was fired. The season was cooked.

The penalties were dumb, the defense was disintegrating, and a football team was on the verge of a collapse that would have plunged a desperate program into the deepest of chaos.

But then, in front of a half-filled Coliseum on a Friday night lined with dread, something remarkable happened.

The USC football team fought on.

BOX SCORE: USC 30, NO. 10 UTAH 23

The Trojans still know how to do that. They can still find strength from that tradition. They can still live those words.

Utah knows it. Utah felt it. Utah dragged itself from the field while reeling from it.

The previously unbeaten Utes came undone in the fourth quarter Friday by two fourth-quarter hits and a magical fling that gave USC a 30-23 victory and placed this impossibly confusing Trojans season into a rather improbable place.

They're 2-0 in the Pac-12, they're 3-1 overall, and they've somehow slowed the lingering narrative of change, transforming it into a song of hope.

The game began with backup-turned-starting quarterback Kedon Slovis being flattened, helped from the field, and lost for the game with a head injury.

The game ended with third-stringer Matt Fink, a two-year bench-warmer who nearly transferred to Illinois last summer, throwing for 351 yards and three touchdowns.

The night began with cheers for coach Urban Meyer, fans screaming, "H-ire Ur-ban."

The night ended with much louder chants of, "We Are S.C."

For once, they were, and maybe they will be again, and maybe it's good that new university president Carol L. Folt was at midfield for the coin toss and then stuck around to see the potential of this place.

"This is a mentally tough bunch," Helton said afterward. "It is, 'What are you going to do? Are you going to make excuses or are you going to get the job done?'"

They could have started making excuses in the fourth quarter with Fink struggling and the Trojans defense on the brink of folding. The Trojans had led 21-10 shortly after halftime, then Fink threw a reckless interception that led to a Utah touchdown, and now the energized Utes were sitting third-and-goal from the one-yard line with one plunge needed to take the lead.

Not on this night. Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao broke through and pulled down quarterback Tyler Huntley in the backfield for a sack, the Utes settled for a field goal to pull them to within 21-20, and the momentum turned.

On the Utes next possession, Drake Jackson forced Huntley into an intentionally grounded pass from the end zone for a safety, the Trojans led 23-20, and now it was time for the dagger.

That came on the Trojans' next possession, with Fink on third down flinging a perfect pass that Michael Pittman Jr. pulled down in stride for a 42-yard gain that stole the Utes' breath and caused the Coliseum to shake with a roar.

Three plays later, Markese Stepp scored on a four-yard run and the game was essentially over, the only remaining exercise being an examination of the incredible numbers.

The Trojans won a game in which they gained 13 yards rushing. They won a game in which they committed 117 yards worth of penalties. They won a game in which their already graduated quarterback threw three times as many touchdown passes as in his previous two years on the team combined.

"The definition of fight on," Helton said. "And don't know how to quit."

Nobody epitomized that more than Fink, a guy who just last spring had entered the transfer portal and nearly bolted. But even though he had played in just seven games in two seasons on the bench, throwing only 18 passes, he decided to stay on the team.

Then Friday night, finally given a meaningful chance, he decided to win the game.

"In today's world, things don't go always your way," said Helton of Fink. "He lived through adversity. He said, 'You know what, when my opportunity comes up, I'll make the most of it.' In a world where everybody goes different places, this one stayed for this family, waiting for his moment, waiting for his memory, and what a memory it was tonight."

Fink confirmed he stayed for his Trojans family because, well, it's a brotherhood of pretty talented football players.

"This team is stacked, you have the best players in the nation here, why would I go somewhere else and play with lesser athletes?" he said. "SC is on the rise. We have guys who are going to push us to the top here."

And to think, the night started so awkwardly for so many different Trojans.

About 40 minutes before the game, several dozen fans were sitting adjacent to the end zone where coaching legend Meyer was offering commentary on Fox Sports 1. Soon enough, staring Meyer in his expressionless face, they added their own opinions, chanting for him to be hired.

Later, on the FS1 broadcast, USC legend Reggie Bush ripped the Trojans' pregame appearance.

"I see too many guys from USC out here warming up with their shirts off, other guys with shirts on their heads," he said. "It doesn't look like a team. This is a team sport. Put your shirt on. You're not undefeated. Put some clothes on and look like a football team."

Fans responded later by chanting, "Reg-gie, Reg-gie"

Then the game began and things got worse, Slovis smothered by Leki Fotu on the second play of the game, stunning the crowd into silence just three weeks after watching starter JT Daniels knocked out with a season-ending knee injury.

Have no fear, the flinging Fink is here! He lofted his second pass to Tyler Vaughns for a dozen yards, his third pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown for 15, his fourth pass to Pittman for eight, while his fifth pass was lofted 29-yards to Vaughns for a touchdown.

That silence quickly erupted in cheers, but Fink was just getting started.

On his second possession, he hit Pittman for 26 yards on third down, scrambled and hit Josh Falo for a dozen, then shook off a seemingly sure sack by Devin Lloyd and hit St. Brown between two defenders for 31 yards and a touchdown.

Crazy, right? It was even crazier on their first possession of the second half when, on third down deep in Trojans territory, he heaved the ball into the evening air. It was caught at the 30 by Pittman, who sprinted into the end zone for a 77-yard score that gave USC a 21-10 lead.

"Just doing my job," said Fink. "I don't think this moment was too big for me."

He came back to earth late in the third quarter when Utah's Terrell Burgess picked off his horribly misguided toss around midfield and returned it to the USC 14. A silly taunting penalty against head-butting Austin Jackson moved the ball to the Trojans 7. Three plays later, Utah scored.

But this time, the Trojans didn't break. This time, they walked their talk.

Before the game, the Coliseum scoreboard showed a corny promotional video in which a narrator intoned, "No matter what they put in front of us, we always fight on."

Turns out, on this night anyway, he was right.

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