USC 38, Utah 28: Matt Barkley and the Trojans play their best game of the season

Yes, it may have taken four weeks longer than we expected. And no, the USC Trojans aren’t “there” yet.  But for the first time in 2012, we finally saw glimpses of how good USC can be on Thursday night. In a 38-28 victory over Utah in Salt Lake City, the Trojans were the physical, fast, dominating club everyone expected in August, cruising to a 38-21 victory that was nowhere near as close as the final score might indicate.

Nope, this one wasn’t close, although early on it appeared that not only would it be a tight one, but that USC might actually get upset by the upstart Utes. In the first quarter, offensive line play- which has been this team’s kryptonite through four games- again reared its ugly head, as two early USC fumbles led to a quick Utah 14-0 lead. From there, it appeared as though the Trojans might lose their second game in three opportunities, along with any chance of a BCS title run that might come with it.

Then, USC simply turned into USC. The fast-paced, offensive attack we’d been waiting for all season showed up, alongside the usual steady defense, a unit which allowed just one more Utah touchdown until the final seconds of the game. You know how they say “numbers never lie?” Well they did in the case of the final score of this game. USC was much more than 10 points better than Utah on Thursday.   

In the process, the Trojans victory also resulted in two more very important realities: For starters, if he can continue to play like he did Thursday, Matt Barkley will be back in the Heisman conversation sooner rather than later. It also marked the return of the Trojans as a true title contender as well.

First, with Barkley, the simple truth is that through four games, the fun-loving, easy-going guy that we saw tear up the Pac-12 simply wasn’t there. But whatever Barkley did in his bye week seemed to work, and on Thursday night, he played far and away his best game of the season.

Ultimately though, it wasn’t just about the stats, not about the 303 yards and three touchdowns, but instead about how he got them. For the first time all year, Barkley looked like the Matt Barkley we all saw last year. He was poised in the pocket. He looked confident in finding his second or third receiver. And boy, oh boy did he look good throwing the deep ball. Again, it’s not about the stats, because as good as they were, the simple truth is they probably should’ve been better. Barkley threw at least two or three deep balls that should’ve been caught, but his receivers just dropped. Still, Barkley was at just about his best Thursday.

In the process, USC also emerged as the team we were all expected in August, the one which can compete with anyone in college football.

Now granted, we all know that a lot of the variables that will eventually go into USC’s title hopes are completely out of their control. If schools like Florida State, Alabama, Texas, LSU or anyone else remain undefeated, there is nothing the Trojans can do to get themselves back in the title picture. We get that.

Still, at this point USC can’t control what everyone else is doing, and can only take care of the opponent in front of them. On Thursday they did that. As we mentioned, the offense operated at a level they haven’t since the opener against an awful Hawaii team, and the defense was effective, even if it wasn’t spectacular. Yes they gave up a fair number of yards, but made the big plays when they counted. Utah converted only 3 of 12 third down attempts.

In the end, it’s pretty clear that no, USC isn’t back. This win was just one of many more that they’ll need just to put themselves in the discussion for a Pac-12 title, let alone a BCS National Championship.

But after three straight sloppy games and one loss, USC needed something positive, anything really to hang their hats on going forward.

They got that Thursday night.

Whether that continues will remain to be seen.

For all his opinion, insight and analysis, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.  

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.