Los Angeles • Even in the fog of the aftermath of Utah’s disappointing loss to USC, the reasons for the defeat were clear to see — mistakes.
“The wheels came off,” Kyle Whittingham said in the postgame.
That’s good news, in a twisted sort of way, for the Utes.
Mistakes are fixable. Wheels are re-attachable. Lack of ability is neither.
It sounds awful then, condemning even, while also covered in excuse, to say Utah was good enough to win here, but didn’t. That sounds like part self-betrayal and part rationalizing. And it’s both. But looking ahead to what’s left of their Pac-12 schedule, it should be heartening for the Utes to know that they can improve. And they’ll have to, considering Washington State is next up, and in three of the following four weeks, Arizona State, Cal, and Washington.
If any of that seems condescending, it’s not meant to be.
Utah doesn’t have to tear itself down, doesn’t have to reinvent itself, it just has to punch itself in its collective head. It must redirect its efforts, its focus, its commitment, its resolve.
And if the Utes can do that, if they have the humility and fortitude to do it, they can yet save their season, hoping all along now that USC will blow a couple of its own toes off somewhere en route.
“I would bet any amount you want to bet that nobody goes through the South undefeated, which means we have a shot,” Whittingham said. “There’s a lot of football left.”
Still, the Utes have forfeited their right to concern themselves only with themselves, on account of their acquiescing to the Trojans. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, not this season, a season in which the Utes, they figured, had the best collection of talent, at least when the players and the coaches and the system were all taken into consideration.
“It’s disappointing,” Whittingham said.
This year was purported to be different, better even than last season, when Utah won the South and made it to the Pac-12 title game. The Utes did that the hard way, after losing their first two league games and charging back.
They were the consensus favorites this time, and putting that into the past tense seems a little harsher than it should. But champions don’t stumble and bumble all over themselves as they’re executing their maneuvers in the field. They don’t commit 16 penalties for a combined 120 yards. They don’t fumble on the 2-yard line when a score would give them the lead. They don’t give up deep passes that go for touchdowns, or that allow an opponent to convert on third down from its own territory into scoring position when said champion needs the ball back for its own offense to erase or close out the deficit that vexes it.
Yet, the Utes bumped and skidded their way through all of that on Friday night against the Trojans. The back end of their defense, for instance, gave up 368 passing yards and three touchdowns. Jaylon Johnson, considered by some to be a high selection in the NFL Draft, was picked on through stretches, and other Utes were beaten in front and over the top.
There were some hidden explanations, though, such as the fact that safety Julian Blackmon was playing with an injured knee. But playing, he was.
“We had no answer for their receiving corps,” said Whittingham. “That’s a really, really talented group. … We, as coaches, have to do a better job of coaching.”
Whittingham almost ruefully pointed out that the Utes “out-statted” the Trojans. “That doesn’t mean anything,” he added.
They gained more yards, they got more first downs, they turned the ball over fewer times, their time of possession was more substantial.
And their hurt afterward was greater.
For its part, USC couldn’t have been happier.
“We won a huge ballgame against a very good team,” Trojans coach Clay Helton said.
He did not say, “We won a huge ballgame against a very good team that kept us in the game by repeatedly hitting itself over the head with a socket wrench,” although he could have. On the other hand, his own squad revealed its propensity for boneheadedness, too. The Trojans racked up 11 penalties for 117 yards, suffering a couple of turnovers, and missing assignments, cluttering their path to victory.
But the Utes were the favorites, thereby carrying the burden of higher expectation, thereby suffering the judgment of underperformance in a meaningful league game they were supposed to win. Even that schedule had smiled upon them, helping them dodge Oregon and Stanford, and setting them up with a home-field edge in some of their tougher games in their intended climb to the top of the conference.
Heavy is the burden of the hunted, which is exactly what the Utes were this season, as opposed to their more comfortable position of the past as the hunter. From here on out, they’ll be both.
Now, we’ll see what the response is, now that they’ve fallen. And now that, even if they win out, they’ll have to hope that the other guys somehow hurt themselves in like fashion along the way.
“This is a tough group,” Whittingham said. “They’re proud, they’re hard-working, they’re mature. We have great leadership.”
They’ll need all of it, and more, in the weeks ahead.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.