Utes in review: Players say they will regroup, but a lot was lost at USC

Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley, center, lunges for yardage next to Southern California cornerback Chris Steele (8) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Los Angeles • The last two minutes of Friday night’s game ticked off the Los Angeles Coliseum clock with Utah’s defensive players standing on the field, powerless to do anything about a 30-23 loss to USC. The slow, painful ending of the Utes’ Pac-12 opener gave safety Julian Blackmon time to turn the page.

In the interview room in the tunnel, Blackmon said, “We're over this game already, immediately.”

Is it really that easy, though? The list of what Utah lost is long and discouraging. Gone are the Utes’ Top 10 ranking, favored status in the Pac-12 South, realistic hope of making the College Football Playoff and the likelihood of hosting ESPN’s “College GameDay” next weekend during Washington State’s visit.

Mix in an apparent shoulder injury that sidelined star running back Zack Moss, and Utah’s outlook was radically altered in another frustrating trip to the Coliseum. People will be writing in 2021 about how the Utes haven’t won in Los Angeles in 105 years. “It’s just disappointing,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Whittingham said he told his players, “I would bet any amount of money you want to bet, no one goes through the South undefeated … which means we've got a shot.”

The Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl berth remain in play for Utes (3-1). Yet even if they win all eight remaining games, they'll need USC (3-1, 2-0 Pac-12) to lose twice, and everybody else in the division is allowed to view themselves as having a good chance to win it.

ESPN’s Football Power Index roughly projects Utah and USC to each finish 6-3 in conference play, with the Trojans owning the tiebreaker.

The Utes are where they were last September, having lost their conference opener (to Washington) and meeting Washington State. To avoid another 0-2 start, they’ll have to regroup — offensively, probably without Moss, and defensively, facing another all-out passing scheme.

Three takeaways

Utah’s offensive statistics were hollow. The Utes ran 79 offensive plays to USC’s 54 and posted 457 total yards to the Trojans’ 381, but scored a touchdown on only one of their last five trips inside the 20-yard line.

Moss’ absence played into those failures, although he had a tough time running straight ahead against USC. Utah’s offense was hurt by six holding penalties — two each for the linemen, receivers and tight ends. But the USC defense committed penalties that gave the Utes six of their 27 first downs.

Whittingham’s view from the sideline of his secondary’s performance was remarkably accurate. As replays showed, “Often times, we were in position; couldn’t locate the ball, just couldn’t find it,” Whittingham said. Even including All-Pac-12 cornerback Jaylon Johnson, the players “seemed a little disoriented at times back there.”

USC fill-in quarterback Matt Fink passed for 351 yards, with half of that total coming on touchdown passes of 29, 31 and 77 yards and a 42-yard completion.

After so much went wrong for Utah in the first half, the game ultimately was decided by key plays in the fourth quarter of the Utes’ first true, 60-minute contest. Utah couldn’t score from the 1-yard line, gave up a safety when quarterback Tyler Huntley was pressured and allowed that 42-yard gain on third and 8. And then, having held USC to five net rushing yards, Utah let the Trojans gain two first downs on the ground to end the game.

Player of the game

Michael Pittman Jr., USC receiver. Each member of the Trojans’ receiving trio caught a touchdown pass, but Pittman rose above the others with 10 catches for 232 yards. He initially exploited Utah’s man-to-man coverage, then his 77-yard play came when he caught the ball in between Blackmon and cornerback Tareke Lewis.

Runner-up: Tyler Huntley, Utah quarterback. He completed 22 of 30 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions (for a fourth game in a row) and ran for 60 net yards, doing everything he could to keep the Utes moving without Moss. Huntley officially was sacked twice after repeatedly escaping in the first half, as he did in the previous three games.

Play of the game

Devin Brumfield's lost fumble on a first-and-goal play from the USC 2-yard line in the last minute of the first half was tough for Utah to absorb, trailing 14-10. The Utes recovered from that disaster, though.

The more critical play came early in the fourth quarter, on third and goal from the 1. Brumfield had run for 2 yards on second down, but offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig didn't trust the offensive line to get Brumfield into the end zone. Huntley faked a handoff and was swarmed for a 6-yard loss.

Jadon Redding's field goal pulled Utah to within 21-20, but a go-ahead touchdown would have put a lot of pressure on the Trojans. Ludwig's earlier call of a pass to tight end Cole Fotheringham on third and goal from the 2 worked wonderfully. This play fell apart.

Up next

Utah will host Washington State next Saturday (8 p.m.) for homecoming, 52 weeks after losing 28-24 to the Cougars via a late, 89-yard touchdown pass. It is either comforting or horrifying that the Utes will have experience against an Air Raid scheme. “We've got to find answers,” Whittingham said, after he and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley adjusted with more zone coverage against USC as the game progressed.

The consolation, Whittingham said after dealing with USC receivers, is “I don't know if we'll see a group as talented the rest of the year.”

The Cougars will be coming off Saturday’s late game vs. UCLA.