This year it was supposed to different.
In 96 years, the University of Utah had never beaten Southern Cal at the Coliseum. But this year, the Utes walked in as the projected Pac-12 champion, as a team ranked 10th in the country and with a roster boasting a handful of senior NFL draft prospects while the once-mighty Trojans seemed a shell of their former selves.
Instead, an opportunistic defense and gutty play from third-string quarterback Matt Fink delivered a stunning 30-23 win, helping embattled USC head coach Clay Helton capture one of the biggest wins of his tenure.
Fink, who was abruptly thrust into the game after true freshman backup Kyle Slovis was knocked out on the first series with a concussion, was the obvious big winner and deserves all of the attention he will receive for the win. The junior completed 21/30 passes on the night for 351 yards and three touchdowns. It was a magical night for the junior quarterback, who considered transferring this spring when Helton and his his staff announced the team's depth chart, with J.T. O'Sullivan (torn ACL in Week One) and Slovis each beating him out.
Showing impressive poise, Fink delivered quality passes throughout the night, including some pillow-soft touch on deep throws.
He also had plenty of help, including from USC's best NFL draft prospect, wide receiver Michael Pittman, Jr., who caught 10 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown. The gaudy yardage total is the 5th highest in a single game in USC's storied history.
As you can see in the video below, the 6-4, 225 pound Pittman does not simply rely on his height and leaping ability to beat defenders. He times his leap perfectly and showed terrific balance through contact, strength to brush past arm tackles and just enough speed to finish the play.
The reason why he currently ranks 8th on DraftScout.com’s list of senior wide receivers is that scouts question his true speed, with estimates ranging from the mid 4.5s to mid 4.6s.
As this closer look at the same play demonstrates, however, Pittman plays faster than he may run in shorts, with the subtle shifts as a route-runner leaving defenders on their heels.
It is attention to detail one might expect from Pittman, Jr., the son of a former NFL running back of the same name, who played 11 years in the league.
While Pittman and Fink certainly deserve the attention they will receive for Friday night’s exploits, Utah defensive tackle Leki Fotu was clearly the best player on the field.
The 6-5, 335 pound monster in the middle entered his senior campaign ranked 20th overall on my preseason Top 32 Big Board. Last night demonstrated that I – and many, many others – are ranking him far too low.
Demonstrating a combination of size, strength and explosiveness that has previously earned Vita Vea (Washington), Leonard Williams (USC), Star Lotulelei (Utah) and Haloti Ngata (Oregon) top 12 selections in their respective classes, Fotu rag-dolled USC blockers and skill-position players, alike Friday night.
His massive (but legal) hit on Slovis on USC’s second offensive play from scrimmage ended his night almost immediately.
The pancakes weren’t over with Slovis leaving the game. Fotu delivered a similar collision a quarter late, resulting in a fumble.
Every team in the league is looking for quick, penetrating defensive tackles capable of ruining running plays before they even start. Those players are often shorter than the blockers tasked with slowing them, using their natural leverage advantage to slip free but often wearing down later in the game.
That is not the case with Fotu, who is not only bigger and more athletic than virtually anyone who has attempted to block him thus far this year, he’s also more productive than one might think going simply off his box score.
It is the nature of Fotu’s position (and Utah’s scheme) that he won’t rack up the eye-popping statistics to generate much national attention when it comes to awards and All-American teams. He recorded just two tackles overall Friday night, with one tackle for loss and the forced fumble.
Give Fotu a lot of credit for another statistic, however. The Utes held USC to just 13 net rushing yards (on 22 attempts) in this contest, making the Trojans’ win all the more improbable. By comparison, the Utes ran for 247 yards on 49 attempts Friday night and that despite losing star running back Zack Moss to a shoulder injury in the first half.
Fellow Senior Bowl candidate Bradlee Anae was more productive, according to the stat-sheet, registering five tackles, including two for loss and a sack. The 6-3, 260 pound Anae, who checked in at 26th on my Big Board) is the two-time defending PAC-12 sack champion. The sack you see below is his 4th of the season.
It shows his burst, quality hand usage and bend around the corner – traits which could earn him first round consideration.
The duo could be primarily competing with each other to earn the Morris Trophy this year as the best defensive lineman in the PAC-12.