With so much on the table at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night against USC, the Utah Utes responded by holding their position for a while and, then … teetering in their chairs, tipping forward, slamming their foreheads on the tabletop and slumping to the floor.
It was not a moment of glory.
It might have been. It could have been. It would have been. Except it shouldn’t have been. And, as it turned out, it wasn’t. In sincere reflection — let’s be real here — it likely never was going to be.
Matt Barkley’s 83-yard touchdown heave early in the fourth quarter settled that business, giving the Trojans a 10-point lead. Nickell Robey’s pick-six a couple of minutes later, shut the deal down. A late meaningless Ute score narrowed the final numbers on the board: USC 38, Utah 28.
Of all the things at stake, though, glory was only on the game’s outer edge.
Utah was looking here for other gains, for simple self-esteem, for a good reason to feel good about itself again, for something, anything, that would give a boost to a seriously sagging season. What it got was a mixed bag, a decent effort … until the end, a sloppy effort throughout, and, ultimately, more reason to doubt.
And that was kind of … sobering.
Watching the action unfold the way it did was like watching a humble-but-hungry-and-hopeful kid open his one birthday gift and get drilled in the face by a snake nut can. It’s all fun and games until he has the bejeebers scared out of him and his heart crushed.
Same with the Utes.
They unscrewed the can with great anticipation, all right, and out popped the coiled, classic practical joke.
Barkley popped out, completing 23 of 30 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns, including that biggie in the fourth.
A modest bit of optimism is what USC had represented on Thursday night. Before this matchup ever commenced, it already had fallen short of its preseason hype. The magnificent Trojans were supposed to have come in here undefeated, atop the polls, soaring. Utah figured it would also be unbeaten, or, at worst, once beaten. Well. Stanford took out SC; Utah State and Arizona State laid the Utes low.
Still, Utah viewed the Trojans the way all Pac-12 opponents view them — as the beast that has won a zillion Rose Bowls. Beating them, or even hanging with them, would provide the aforementioned bounce the Utes so badly needed.
That bounce ricocheted beyond their reach.
The game commenced with the Trojans handing Utah a couple of big opportunities that only seemed to be practical jokes, both given by Barkley near his own end zone, and both leading to quick Ute touchdowns.
The score was 14-zip inside of three minutes, one TD coming on a strip-and-grab-and-run by Utah left end Nate Fakahafua and the second off a botched snap, which set up a fade pass from Jon Hays to Kenneth Scott.
That turned out to be a mere tease. USC came straight back with a touchdown and a field goal.
An impressive answer by Utah — an eight-play, 81-yard scoring drive — ended in an 11-point advantage midway through the second quarter.
After that, the Trojans went for two touchdowns, while the Utes were blanked into the half, with USC up, 24-21
For such a high-scoring affair, the action was ugly — no, ooogly — enough to scare the mud off a shovel. And the ooogliness continued throughout. Total combined penalties for both teams: 27 for 222 yards. There were four turnovers.
The Utes had a decent idea here, attacking the Trojans through the air, passing nearly twice as much as they ran, but it didn’t hold up at the end. Neither team scored in the third quarter. And the fourth favored USC, 14-7.
Where do the Utes go from here?
They make themselves believe they had a real shot. They say if they correct their errors, they can still have a terrific season, even currently at 2-3, 0-2 in league. And that’s all good. What are they supposed to do … shrug and pack it in?
But the elusive encouragement they were hoping for didn’t come against these Trojans. And their season overall is falling far short of grand expectations. Damn snake nut can.