Column: On improbable night, USC lives up to its motto and silences critics

USC tailback Markese Stepp is swarmed by teammates after scoring a touchdown against Utah in the fourth quarter at the Coliseum on Friday.
USC tailback Markese Stepp is swarmed by teammates after scoring a touchdown against Utah in the fourth quarter at the Coliseum on Friday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

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 players fought on.

They still know how to do that. They can still find strength from that ancient tradition. They can still breathe new life into those two weathered words.

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

With two fourth-quarter hits and a magical fling from another miracle benchwarmer, USC stunned the previously unbeaten Utes on Friday with a 30-23 victory that 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 transformed the lingering narrative of change into a song of hope.

USC quarterback Matt Fink stepped in for injured Kedon Slovis to lead the Trojans to a 30-23 win over No. 10 Utah.

Sept. 20, 2019

His players, said embattled Coach Clay Helton, “are the definition of fight on, and who don’t know how to quit.”

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 extra who nearly transferred to Illinois last summer, throwing for 351 yards and three touchdowns.

The night began with cheers for coach Urban Meyer as he sat on the field as a commentator for Fox Sports 1, with 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.

“I think this is a mentally tough bunch,” Helton said. “Stuff is bad sometimes, and what are you going to do? Are you going to make excuses or 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 the Utes were now reeling.

“We were all together, grinding it out,” Jackson said. “Tonight we had to grind it out again,”

The grinding ended with the glorious, on the Trojans’ next possession. On third down, Fink flung 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.

“The guy’s a monster,” Fink said of Pittman, who gained 232 yards on 10 catches with a touchdown. “You can’t guard him.”

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.

“Not everything was perfect tonight, far from it. We have a lot to clean up,” Helton said. “But I tell you, this team is special and by the end of the season they’re going to be a very special product.”

About 20 minutes into Friday night’s live broadcast of Fox’s ‘Big Noon Kickoff’ pregame show at the Coliseum, the USC fans assembled by the southwest tunnel got their wish.

Sept. 20, 2019

Nobody epitomized that more than Fink, USC’s career stand-in, a guy who was demoted to third string last spring, 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.

“When he got told the bad news, that he was third, he took it like a man and said, ‘Coach, I’m going to keep on competing, I’m gonna show you I’m a great player,’” Helton recounted. “And I said, ‘I know you’re a great player, just keep being ready, your time’s coming, you just don’t know when.’ And today it came.”

Helton still sounds amazed that Fink didn’t follow the trend and transfer.

“In a world where everybody goes different places, this one stayed for this family and waiting for his moment and waiting for his memory,” Helton said. “And what a memory it was here 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 into Meyer’s expressionless face, those fans added their own opinions, calling for Helton to be replaced by Meyer.

Later, on the FS1 broadcast, USC legend Reggie Bush didn’t help Helton’s cause by ripping the Trojans’ pregame appearance. It was Bush’s first appearance at a USC game at the Coliseum since since 2010, the NCAA having essentially banned him from the school for his involvement in rules violations that led to their probation.

“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”

USC wide receiver Michael Pittman breaks away from Utah cornerback Tareke Lewis for a touchdown in the third quarter at the Coliseum on Friday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

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 get 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, and his fifth pass was lofted 29-yards to Vaughns for a startling 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.

“I don’t think this moment was too big for me,” Fink said. “I’ve been in the era of Sam Darnold, and I’ve seen things that were much crazier.”

The craziness continued on their first possession of the second half when, on third down deep in Trojans territory, when Fink just 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.

“I think getting in today and showing what I can do was what I really wanted to do by staying here,” Fink said.

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.