Matt Fink steps in for injured Kedon Slovis and USC defense holds off No. 10 Utah

USC quarterback Matt Fink throws downfield against Utah in the first quarter at the Coliseum on Friday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The scene felt so painfully familiar: USC’s quarterback pasted to the turf, unable to get up, an anxious crowd collectively holding its breath, a lingering sense of dread settling over the Coliseum.

Three weeks earlier, JT Daniels lay crumpled just a few yards away from this spot, his season over in an instant. Friday night, at a crucial juncture in USC’s season, here was the captivating freshman backup who had taken his place, Kedon Slovis, lying on his back, his head spinning after it was slammed to the turf.

So, in a high-stakes Pac-12 Conference showdown bursting with subplots from the fickle job security of Clay Helton to the return of banished Trojans legend Reggie Bush to the looming presence of Urban Meyer, it was Matt Fink, once the Trojans’ third-string quarterback, who was forced onto the field and into the spotlight.

Then, like USC’s other backup before him, Fink proceeded to steal the show, launching deep ball after deep ball down the field and leading the Trojans to an improbable 30-23 victory over No. 10 Utah.

As Helton’s job and USC’s season hung in the balance, it was Fink and his 351-yard, three-touchdown performance that unexpectedly thrust them back into the thick of the Pac-12 race. Slovis, who suffered an apparent head injury on that play, was not medically cleared to return, leaving Fink, the Trojans’ only remaining scholarship quarterback, at the helm.


It was a scenario few could have imagined this summer, when the redshirt junior quarterback had all but given up on a future at USC.

USC defensive lineman Drake Jackson closes in for a sack and safety of Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley in the fourth quarter at the Coliseum on Friday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Determined to find a starting opportunity under center, Fink entered the transfer portal after spring and appeared to settle on going to Illinois after an official visit. But ultimately, he opted to return for another season in L.A., and Helton welcomed him back with open arms.

Now, the USC coach is surely glad he did.

“In a world where everybody goes different places, this one stayed for his family, waiting for his moment, waiting for his memory,” Helton said, “and what a memory it was tonight.”

Even as Fink fell to third on the depth chart, behind Daniels and Slovis, Helton counseled him to stay ready. He reiterated to anyone who would listen how each of the quarterbacks competing for the starting job could’ve played anywhere in the nation.

“Your time is coming,” Helton told Fink. “You just don’t know when.”

On Friday, when that moment arrived, Fink was ready to seize it. It was the kind of performance, he said, that he’d always expected.

“I don’t think this moment was too big for me,” Fink said. “Getting in today and showing them what I can do, this is what I really wanted to do by staying here.”

As Utah’s punishing defense stifled USC’s rushing attack, giving up only 13 net yards, it was left to Fink and his fleet of receivers to move the offense.

So they took to the air. After missing his first pass, Fink completed his next eight, including two deep, first-quarter touchdowns — first, to Tyler Vaughns, then to Amon-ra St. Brown, both dropped perfectly between Utah defensive backs.

He’d thrown only 18 total passes before this season, but on Friday night, up against the nation’s No. 6 scoring defense, Fink threw downfield with the utmost confidence. Utah, which opened the game in man coverage, was left reeling. And so, USC kept dialing up deep balls.

But as USC (3-1, 2-0) extended an early lead on big plays from its third-string quarterback, Utah slowly grinded its defense down. Even as star running back Zack Moss left with an apparent shoulder injury, the Utes (3-1, 0-1) ran over the Trojans’ front, racking up 247 yards on the ground and tiring them out by dominating time of possession, a battle they won by more than a full quarter.

USC wide receiver Michael Pittman makes a big catch against Utah in the fourth quarter at the Coliseum on Friday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

With a chance to take the lead just before the half, Utah running back Devin Brumfield lost a fumble at the goal line. It was the fourth of five straight Utah drives ending in USC territory, but all five would yield only a single field goal.

A litany of penalties helped change the tenor of the night — often in USC’s favor. Although the Trojans were called for 11, their opponent was flagged an inexplicable 16 times.

Still, USC would need more to put away the Pac-12 preseason favorite. Facing a third down on its first drive after the half, Fink uncorked his prettiest deep pass of the night, finding Michael Pittman Jr., who brushed off a Utah defensive back on his way to a highlight-reel, 77-yard touchdown.

Pittman had played a major role in persuading Fink to stay at USC this summer.

On Friday, that connection was obvious, as Fink went to the top Trojans receiver 10 times for 232 yards and a score.

“The guy is a monster,” Fink said. “You can’t guard him. That goes with Amon-ra, with Tyler Vaughns, with Drake [London]. We’re stacked all across the board, and with weapons like that, you can’t do anything about it.”

But in the third quarter, Utah finally made Fink pay for his fearlessness with an interception. Three plays later, the Utes scored, cutting the lead to a single score.

USC’s much-maligned defense stood strong from there, however, putting the finishing touches on the Trojans’ most impressive victory of the young season.

With Utah threatening to take the lead, USC sent safety Isaiah Pola-Mao on a blitz up the middle, stopping scrambling Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley in his tracks.

When Huntley tried to scramble again one drive later, USC’s forced an errant throw in the end zone, which resulted in a safety by intentional grounding.

“We needed every play,” Helton said.

One last big play, a 42-yard pass to Pittman, set up a four-yard touchdown run by Markese Stepp, which made it 30-20. In the end zone, Stepp drew a penalty for celebrating with Reggie Bush, whose mere presence in the Coliseum was one of the many underlying story lines Friday night.

But as the Trojans held onto victory, moving the program to more stable ground atop the Pac-12 South, it was Matt Fink, the onetime third-string quarterback and near-transfer, who’d stolen the show.