Whicker: Michael Pittman, Matt Fink show value of staying put at USC

LOS ANGELES — Michael Pittman could have been in an NFL meeting room Friday night. Matt Fink could have been at Illinois, a football-free zone, trying to figure how to survive Nebraska.

Pittman did not turn pro. Fink, contrary to reports, never transferred to Illinois. Other assumptions about USC, and the constantly-moving tectonic plates of its football program, will be proven or disproven in due time.

What happened Friday night was that Pittman had one of the best nights any receiver ever has had as a target for a third-string quarterback. The Trojans rode those two, plus a defense that bent, broke and reassembled itself, to a 30-23 win over 10th-ranked Utah and a 3-1 record with three different quarterbacks.

“We’re running out of them,” Pittman said, smiling. “But Matt did a great job. He loves to throw those fades.”

Fink and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell rejected the second rule of insanity: If something works, quit doing it.

Pittman, at 6-foot-4, was turning Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson and his mates into spinning tops. Fink kept throwing drones in Pittman’s direction, and Pittman kept catching them, for 26, 33, 77 and 42 yards. He wound up with 232 yards on 10 catches. Both were career highs for Pittman, and only four USC receivers have gained more yards in a game. In all of 2018, Pittman caught 31 for 437.

Few blue-chip recruits go to college intending to become seniors, but that’s what Pittman is after he decided to avoid the NFL draft. Few quarterbacks expect to graduate from college before they get their first significant action and Fink, finding himself behind JT Daniels (now hurt) and Jack Sears (in the transfer portal), visited Illinois as a possible grad transfer.

But when Kedon Slovis was knocked incoherent on the second play of the game, Fink came in with a well-rested and hungry arm.

“I didn’t know what Matt was going to do, but I just supported him and told him to do what was best for him,” Pittman said.

“Check out those stats,” Fink said, referring to Pittman’s, although his own 351 yards on 21-for-30 passing stood up, too.

“The guy’s a monster. You can’t stop him, but I can say that about all our guys. We’ve got weapons stacked across the board and when they play like that, you can’t do anything about it.”

“If our guys get one-on-one opportunities, they’re going to win them,” Harrell said. “We’ve got eight of them that I feel great about, one-on-one. Michael Pittman at times wins two-on-one, as you saw tonight, so that really helps the cause.”

There was intrigue on both sides of the sideline.

Utah came in ranked No. 10 and was voted the preseason Pac-12 title favorite. It lost running back Zack Moss halfway through Friday’s game, but also committed seven holding penalties and 16 infractions overall, lost a fumble on the USC 2-yard line, had a field-goal attempt blocked and gave up a safety on Drake Jackson’s sack, shortly after USC punter Nick Griffiths jailed the Utes on their own 6-yard line. They weren’t very good, in other words.

But there was also the usual noise around the status of Coach Embattled Clay Helton (now his given name) and the presence of former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, working the game for Fox Sports.

Meyer won the 2014 national championship with Cardale Jones coming from deep off his Buckeyes bench, so he probably thought he saw a well-coached team Friday night.

Carol Folt, the new USC president, was here, too. She was inaugurated in the afternoon. Her comprehensive broom is supposed to sweep out Helton, especially after she hires an athletic director to replace the dismissed Lynn Swann.

But it’s worth noting that Folt comes here from North Carolina, where the previous football coach, Larry Fedora, was 5-18 the past two seasons, after losing bowl games in the previous three. So Folt probably did not think she was watching bad football here. How her North Carolina experience translates into her evaluation of USC basketball, we’ll have to see.

And there was the usual sky-is-falling posture from the fans after USC lost in overtime at Brigham Young.

“We don’t hear what the fans say that much, because they’re only with you when things are good,” Pittman said. “And that’s what a fan is. They’re not going to cheer on a team that goes 5-7. There’s no reason to.

“We wanted to win this game because it was one of our goals, like getting to the playoff, getting to the natty (championship game). We’re just checking off the boxes.”

As in the win over Stanford, USC’s defense swelled with each quarter, once it got a handle on stopping the slippery moves of quarterback Tyler Huntley. The Utes piled up the yards and snapped the ball 79 times to USC’s 54. But USC had enough gas to deny Utah touchdowns on four of six red-zone trips.

Utah was down 21-17 early in the fourth and had a third down on the USC 1-yard line. Isaiah Pola-Mao, who made the critical interception against Fresno State, sought out Huntley and dealt him a 6-yard loss, forcing a field goal that kept the Trojans ahead.

Then Griffiths pinned Utah back, and yet another holding penalty forced a second-and-10, which Jackson, the freshman from Centennial High of Corona, turned into a safety off “a rip move,” as he said. Huntley was called for intentional grounding on his way down.

“The sideline got super-excited when we saw that,” said Markese Stepp, the brutish runner who gets the call when the other defense is too tired to take him on. Stepp bulled his way on a 4-yard score that made it 30-20, after Fink, on third-and-8, speared Pittman for 42 yards.

The stairmaster gets steeper. The Trojans play at Washington next Saturday, and at Notre Dame two weeks later. Harrell’s Air Raid offense needs an offensive line that doesn’t make quarterbacks as disposable as blue razors.

The fourth-stringer is walk-on Brandon Perdue, although Pittman said he was “pretty sure” Slovis would be available next week.

But the Trojans can bask, temporarily, in the virtues of the green, green grass of home, and of the dubious nature of unnecessary change. We’ll see if anyone else agrees.

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