All-American receiver Marqise Lee, tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer and safety Dion Bailey offered direction and support to seldom-used reserves and walk-ons in the first half as interim Coach Ed Orgeron preached what has become his mantra:
"One team, one heartbeat."
"Coach O said, 'This is one of those kinds of little-brother-takes-over-for-big-brother games,' " said senior receiver De'Von Flournoy.
With a dominating defensive effort, key and understated performances from previously unheralded players, and kicker Andre Heidari's return to form, USC defeated Utah, 19-3, at the Coliseum.
Heidari kicked a career best four field goals and the defense caused four turnovers in a victory that improved USC's record to 5-3 overall and 2-2 in Pac-12 Conference play, moving the Trojans to within two victories of qualifying for a bowl game.
"With the circumstances we had, for us to pull out a win and keep working is just awesome," said quarterback Cody Kessler.
USC's circumstances included an injury-depleted roster that got thinner when starting right tackle Kevin Graf and safety Su'a Cravens suffered first-quarter injuries.
But the Trojans found ways to offset the situation:
Walk-ons Nate Guertler, Chris Willson and Shane Sullivan filled in admirably at tight end.
Freshman Darreus Rogers and Flournoy stepped up at receiver.
Freshman defensive back Leon McQuay III had one of the Trojans' three interceptions.
And Bailey provided a huge emotional lift.
Bailey, a three-year starter, had not dressed for the game because of shoulder and hip injuries suffered in last week's 14-10 loss at Notre Dame. But after Cravens suffered a groin injury on a second-quarter interception return, Bailey said he took a painkilling injection at halftime and suited up to play.
Bailey said the decision was "a no-brainer."
"I love my team way too much to sit back and let things not go the way we want it to go," said Bailey, who played the third and fourth quarters.
"That's what a brother would do for another brother," Orgeron said. "That was a great example of just a family bonding together."
USC gave up a field goal on the opening possession but took the lead on Kessler's 30-yard touchdown pass to receiver Nelson Agholor, who played through a rib injury suffered last week.
The defense and Heidari took over from there.
Heidari nearly lost his job this week after missing two field-goal attempts at Notre Dame.
Orgeron said the junior from Bakersfield was "very close" to being replaced, but Heidari held off a challenge this week from walk-ons Alex Wood and Craig McMahon and made first-half field goals from 35, 38, 28 and 40 yards before missing a 37-yard attempt in the third quarter.
"I feel redemption," Heidari said, "so it's a good feeling."
The defense also felt proud after Josh Shaw, McQuay and Cravens intercepted passes and linebacker Anthony Sarao recovered a fumble forced by linebacker Jabari Ruffin on one the Trojans' six sacks.
"That's the No. 1 defense in the conference for a reason," said Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team fell to 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the Pac-12.
Meantime, USC's offense scored only one touchdown for the second consecutive game.
The offensive line eliminated the holding and false-start penalties that plagued USC against Notre Dame, but it gave up five sacks. The Trojans generated just 260 yards, only 30 rushing, and converted just three of 15 third downs.
Asked whether he was concerned about the offense's inability to score touchdowns, Orgeron said, "No."
That issue can apparently wait for another day.
"We just have to keep winning," tailback Silas Redd said. "No matter how ugly it is, we just have to keep fighting and keep battling on and we'll be all right."
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