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Kragthorpe: Ute defense merits bigger share of blame for USC loss

Utah’s defenders have their moments, but an inability to keep USC at bay is their downfall.

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Right until the moment early in the fourth quarter when USC quarterback Matt Barkley dropped back and fired a long pass that Marqise Lee caught in stride and took to the end zone, Utah’s proud defense was fighting off every effort by the Trojans to take control of Thursday’s game.

That was the breaking point.

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The blame for Utah’s 38-28 loss at Rice-Eccles Stadium is deservedly shared by the offense and defense. But so much more is expected of the Ute defense that the bigger chunk of the criticism has to go there.

The group that helped create Utah’s 14-0 lead in the first three minutes of the game could not preserve it.

Facing a very talented offense, the Utes were exposed again — not to the same degree as in their Pac-12 opener at Arizona State, but sufficiently enough to keep them from knocking off the No. 13 Trojans.

Barkley was brilliant, his receivers were outstanding and running back Silas Redd added a nice dimension. The result is as much as the Utes battled to stay in this game, they just could not do it.

Coach Kyle Whittingham described the defense’s performance as "not up to our standards, but decent" after Utah allowed 303 passing yards (including Lee’s 192 receiving yards) and 432 total yards.

USC produced three touchdowns and a field goal in taking a 24-21 first-half lead, and only one of those drives was set up by a Ute turnover. The Trojans failed to score on either of two long drives in the third quarter, thanks to missed field goals, but everything changed early in the fourth period. Barkley found time to stand and deliver the 83-yard bomb over the top to Lee that gave USC a 31-21 lead.

"That’s unacceptable in our scheme," Whittingham said.

An interception of a Jon Hays pass, returned for a touchdown on the next possession, enabled USC to pull away.

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Those seven points are not charged to the defense, but 31 already was far too many points for the Utes to allow if they had any hopes of staging an upset. Utah never could sack Barkley, whose greatest skill is getting the ball out of his hand.

Ultimately, the Utes showed that their season is salvageable — but this was not going to be the game that truly saved it.

There were some good efforts, certainly. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was disruptive and safety Brian Blechen made nine tackles and an end-zone deflection. Freshman linebackers Reshawn Hooker and Jason Whittingham were solid in their first starts and Nate Fakahafua stripped Barkley of the ball and scored a touchdown on the game’s second offensive play.

But when it mattered, the Utes could not keep USC out of the end zone. Lotulelei credited the Trojans with "a great job making adjustments" and Fakahafua said the Utes made too many mental mistakes.

Last season in Los Angeles, Utah’s defense also gave up considerable yardage, but allowed only 17 points. The Trojans’ offense has improved since then, although Barkley and his teammates struggled in a 21-14 loss at Stanford in mid-September.

More than anything that happened last season, Thursday’s atmosphere made Utah look and feel like a genuine Pac-12 member. Having the Trojans come to town every other year is good stuff. A mini version of the USC band was dressed in full regalia, four members of the iconic song girls squad were on the sideline and a Heisman Trophy candidate was playing quarterback.

An overflow crowd savored every bit of it for three-plus quarters, only to have the Utes collapse at just the wrong time.


Twitter: @tribkurt

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