USC backup linebackers forced to step up after injuries

USC defensive lineman Christian Rector tackles Utah running back Zack Moss during the first half on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

USC senior middle linebacker Cameron Smith attempted to play Saturday night at Utah, but after a few short cameos during the Utes’ first two drives he was relegated to player-coach for the rest of the evening.

The Trojans knew they were going to have their hands full with the zone-read running scheme of quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, but they also felt comfortable going with true freshman Palaie Gaoteote in Smith’s place after Gaoteote racked up a team-high nine tackles against Colorado.

Gaoteote left the Colorado game in the third quarter with concussion-like symptoms but was cleared to play against Utah this week. Once again, he filled Smith’s shoes admirably with five tackles and a sack in the first half.


The linebacker unit as a whole played an inspired first half without Smith and outside linebacker Porter Gustin — who sustained a season-ending broken ankle injury against the Buffaloes.

Inside linebacker John Houston led the Trojans with 10 tackles in the first half, including a sack that forced a fumble and led to Jay Tufele’s 48-yard touchdown return.

Stepping in for Gustin on the outside was Christian Rector, who chased Huntley all over Rice-Eccles Stadium and compiled eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in the first half alone.

USC’s defense was on the field for 18:04 of the first half and 48 plays. The Trojans’ lack of success sustaining drives put the defense in a tough situation, especially playing in the Utah altitude. But the linebackers especially were up to the test and kept USC in the game headed into halftime.

Pittman is everything

For the second straight week in the first half, the USC offense was dependent on Michael Pittman Jr. to get anything going.

A week after torching the Buffaloes for six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns a week earlier, Pittman accounted for 76 of USC’s 99 first-half yards.

Pittman caught a 34-yard touchdown pass over two Utes defenders that got USC on the board for a 7-0 lead.

Brown misses first field goal

USC kicker Michael Brown had made his first three field-goal attempts of the season after taking over for Chase McGrath, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.

But Brown missed what would have been a game-tying field goal late in the second quarter Saturday night, a 39-yarder that he pushed wide right.

Twitter: @BradyMcCollough