A linebacker could only dream of the opportunity that Utah’s Devin Lloyd got last Friday in Los Angeles.
Lloyd broke free on a blitz, with USC quarterback Matt Fink frozen in front of him, seven yards behind the line of scrimmage on a play that started at the Utah 31. Untouched by blockers, Lloyd grabbed Fink around the shoulders.
In that moment, what were the odds of Fink's throwing a touchdown pass? One in 1,000, maybe?
Somehow, it happened. Fink ducked, shrugged and shook off Lloyd, then retreated and moved to his right as other Ute defenders pursued him. He lofted a pass into the end zone, where USC receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown caught the ball in between Utah safeties Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess. Lloyd, on the ground, heard the Coliseum crowd roar.
Touchdown, USC. Disbelief, Utah.
“The worst feeling you can imagine, knowing you just let that happen,” Lloyd said this week, as the Utes deal with that 30-23 defeat and prepare for Washington State’s visit Saturday.
WASHINGTON STATE AT NO. 19 UTAH
When • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • FS1
Lloyd is having a very good season, with a pleasantly surprising performance that’s not to be dismissed by one missed tackle. He failed to make that play, but he has succeeded in making people forget that Penn State graduate transfer Manny Bowen was ticketed for a starting linebacker job throughout the spring and summer, before Bowen gave up football in late July.
That became the biggest story as the Utes opened preseason camp. Lloyd promised to maximize his opportunity as a third-year sophomore, playing alongside senior Francis Bernard. “I have the same mindset,” he said that day. “I just wanted to come in, dominate, show what I can do. Just now, I know I’m going to be the guy.”
As Utah’s linebackers always do, Lloyd leads the team with 31 tackles in four games, with his 4½ tackles for loss including two sacks. He should have three sacks, of course, and then maybe the Trojans would have scored one fewer touchdown. With a takedown of the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Fink, USC would have faced second-and-17 in a 7-7 game in the first quarter, and who knows what may have happened after that. The Utes still had plenty of chances to win — netting only three points on two trips to the USC 2-yard line or beyond, for example.
The lesson for Lloyd, though? “Just try to tackle him a little bit lower, try to wrap up,” he said.
The highlights of that play aired all weekend, and then Lloyd viewed the film with his position group. It was tough to watch. “But that’s the way you learn, having experiences like that,” he said. “I won’t make that mistake again. I was just trying to get to him as fast as possible, just trying to connect on the hit, but just didn’t grab him all the way.”
Yet even that play illustrated Lloyd’s athletic ability. “I knew after working with him through spring ball, he was a pretty dynamic player,” said Colton Swan, who arrived from Weber State in January as Utah’s linebackers coach.
As a former high school receiver in Southern California, Lloyd is “very athletic; he runs really, really well,” Swan said. “He’s a very smart kid. When you talk to him, you don’t have to tell him multiple times what to do. He gets it the first time around. He drinks it up.”
Lloyd responded to his frustrating play by making a team-high seven tackles Friday, even though USC had only 19 running plays.
His job description will be similar vs. pass-crazy Washington State, usually dropping into coverage and occasionally rushing the passer. He’ll be hoping that WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon won’t become another one who got away.