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Sam Darnold's spark not enough in USC's 31-27 loss at Utah

USC blows a 24-10 lead at Utah in an eerily similar game to two years ago, despite the impressive performance of quarterback Sam Darnold in his first career start.

Quarterback Sam Darnold was inserted into the starting lineup to provide a spark. He did just that.

USC had scored just one touchdown against Power-5 opponents coming, but put up 27 points against a solid Utah defense and special teams unit Friday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

But Darnold couldn’t spark the defense to get a fourth down stop or spark his head coach to go for on fourth-and-3 from the 37-yard line with an opportunity to put the game away with just over five minutes remaining. 

Instead, it was déja vu for the Trojans as they lost 31-27.

Just like in 2014, Utah called for a blackout for a night game with the Trojans coming to town. Just like two years ago, Adoree' Jackson produced an early highlight with a triple-digit kick return for a touchdown. Just like 2014, Jackson also recovered a fumble. But like happened two years ago, the Trojans had a late lead and watched as the Utes marched down the field for a game-winning touchdown in the waning moments.

Both times, the final score came on a pass against Jackson. Friday night, Utah quarterback Troy Williams fired an 18-yard strike into the front corner of the end zone to Tim Patrick while Jackson was on the ground, having been pushed away by Patrick, slipping and losing a shoe in the process. The normally jolly Jackson vehemently pleaded with the referees for an offensive pass interference call. A flag was not produced and USC had just 16 seconds remaining.

USC final ditch effort ended with the ball in right tackle Zach Banner’s hands after a catch and lateral from JuJu Smith-Schuster to the nearest man in cardinal. But before Banner could toss the ball backwards to a skill player, he was cut down by Utah defenders as the clock read triple zero.

USC started the game poorly, fumbling the ball away on its first drive and getting run over by the Utes on their first offensive chance. Utah ran the ball 12 straight times, rushing right down the field for a touchdown. Jackson answered, taking the kick back 100 yards.. That was the Trojans saving grace in the first quarter. They fumbled the ball the next two times they had it as well.

But the defense made adjustments and the offense held onto the football. USC took a 14-10 lead on a Justin Davis 14-yard touchdown run and added a field goal before halftime. The running game gashed for 213 yards on 33 carries (6.5 yards per carry). Davis ran for 126 yards on 10 carries, but was not used at all in the fourth quarter. Darnold added 41 yards on nine carries, including an 8-yard touchdown in the third quarter that put USC ahead 24-10.

Darnold showed he is the quarterback of the future and the present. He was fearless in the pocket, making throws into tight windows and in the midst of heavy pressure on occasion. He finished 18-for-26 in his first career start, tossing for 253 yards. He did what USC had been unable to do the first three weeks and got the ball to Smith-Schuster, who finished with eight catches and 98 yards. Darreus Rogers added five for 58.

Utah cut the lead to 24-17 when offensive lineman Isaac Asiata recovered a fumble in the end zone that had bounced off the hands of two USC defenders before Asiata rescued it at the bottom of a pile. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Matt Boermeester kicked his second field goal to put the Trojans back ahead by two scores. But Williams tossed a 10-yard touchdown after Utah picked up their second of four fourth down conversions and USC ended up punting the ball back to the Utes with 5:37 to go. Instead of being aggressive at Utah’s 37-yard line, Clay Helton chose to use his 'pin to win' strategy, punting on fourth-and-3. The Trojans averaged 7.9 yards per play, but were afraid to try to pick up three.

That gave Williams one last chance and he did it all, leading the Utes on a 95-yard touchdown drive, producing not a spark, but a flame that will keep the party illuminated all night long in Salt Lake City.

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