Los Angeles • As Utah’s Utes moved to the middle of the field here at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Friday night after losing to USC, their minds and bodies slumped, their heads hung low, their spirits dragged anchor, even while the Trojans patted them upside their helmets and half-heartedly encouraged them to carry on.
And later, in the visitors’ locker room, they looked for answers to difficult questions, they searched for reasons to dig deeper.
Why wouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t they?
The final numbers shining into the dark Southern California night up on the stadium’s big board highlighted their failure: SC 30, Utah 23.
For the fifth time since joining the Pac-12, Utah fell to the league’s marquee team in its own building. And for the Utes, the outcome brought as much shock as it did tribulation. They came up short on accomplishing what they were favored to do, what they were most certain they could do. And that failure tossed a heavy burden on their backs, a burden that will get no easier to carry heading into next week’s challenge against Washington State.
No rest for the leery.
The Cougars have presented their own set of troubles for Utah in recent years. And somewhere in the far reaches of their minds, the Utes must have been reminding themselves that they came back from losing their first two league games last season to win the South and qualify for the Pac-12 title game.
At this juncture, though, that thought was as discouraging as it was encouraging.
This year was supposed to be different. This was going to mark the Utes’ clear ascent to the top of the league’s mountain. It still might, but after this loss, despite what happened a year ago, their path, doused now in disappointment, seemed considerably steeper.
For some strange reason, Utah double-clutched here, grinding to find its gears. It made errors — fumbles, drops, penalties, missed assignments, a safety, defensive lapses, you name it. The Utes played without focus, without inspiration, trying to just sort of grab what the Trojans gave them, taking whatever they could, but giving too much back.
Basically, the Utes attempted to grind out yardage on the ground, and knowing USC knew they would do that, they also went to the air. An injury to Zack Moss was of little help. The problems came when Tyler Huntley couldn’t take enough advantage of opened passing lanes. He hit 22 of 30 throws for 210 yards and one TD, unable to consistently punish SC for its focus on building a wall around the run. Huntley did gain 60 yards on the ground.
Going the other way, the Trojans seemed to have determined before the game that to beat the Utes, they had to outscore them. That meant turning the throttle hard on offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid. Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis got hurt on the second play of the game, and was replaced by Matt Fink.
All told, Fink completed 21 of 30 passes for 351 yards and three scores. Utah’s primary defensive approach was what it always is — shut down the run first, and then let the opponent flail away from there. The Trojans flew as much as they flailed, scoring two TDs inside the game’s first seven minutes, and then hitting a 77-yard scoring pass early in the third quarter. A Utah field goal and an SC safety made it, 23-20. Another SC touchdown closed the deal.
What did it all mean?
It’s another complicated question. This game, this outcome, was far from what the Utes had in mind. It was supposed to be a benchmark of sorts, a box checked that heretofore had been unchecked, winning in this historic place against this particular program, launching them forward in a South division race that was — was purported to be — theirs for the taking. Instead, it was a reminder of the many land mines that are buried along the road to good intentions and great expectations. Nothing is easy, nothing can be presumed. Maybe the Utes will rally, will redirect their efforts up a suddenly more arduous climb.
But a sobering notion was given life on Friday night: Maybe not.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.