SALT LAKE CITY -- If only . . .
If only Sam Darnold could have coached this USC team, too.
He did everything else.
"He's the type guy, everybody rallies around him," Justin Davis said of USC's new-found ability to run the ball (213 yards on 33 attempts, a 6.5-yard average, against a defense touted as tough up front). "We can do that with Sam. He can pull it out [on the run-pass option] and that opens it up for all of us."
Unfortunately, Sam could not play defense. And neither could the USC defense on that last drive after the decision to punt fairly deep in Utah territory. Then, as Clay Helton said, all they could was just "hope they can't go 95 yards." They could.
And so Sam stood there with the rest of the USC offense after the Trojans punted with 5:37 left in the game at the Utah 37, leading 27-24, and watched as Utah drove 93 relentless yards on an incredible 19 plays for the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds left.
Nice of the Utes to leave eight seconds more than they did two years ago in another game USC should have won.
If only USC would have taken advantage of a Utah team that threw three incomplete passes on their own 7 to start that drive. And if only USC wouldn't have bailed them out with an Iman Marshall pass interference on that third down. Again, game over.
If only USC woudn't have fumbled the ball three times in the first half, losing all three in a game where they'd have had an insurmountable lead had they taken those drives in for scores like it looked like they were going to. There would have been no coming back from that for a 24th-ranked Utah team that improved to 4-0 and 1-0 in the Pac-12 South, well ahead of the last-place Trojans, now 1-3 and 0-2 in the Pac-12.
If only Utah's fumble at the goal line would not have fallen to guard Isaac Asiata for a touchdown. For those keeping score at home, that's four fumbles in this game, one by Utah giving them a touchdown and three by USC costing them as many as three touchdowns.
If only USC would have made it close to that first down at the 35 when JuJu was bounced backward two yards to make it fourth and 3 and get the punt call.
If only everyone from Helton on down in the USC locker room including members of the USC defense wouldn't have kept saying how much they "hoped" the USC defense, could stop them. The Utah fans knew they couldn't. They'd seen this play out before. They knew they were going to win it. Just the way they did when Sark let one slip away at the end two years ago.
If only Adoree Jackson's shoe wouldn't have come off on that 18-yard game-winning TD pass to Tim Patrick and then slipped when he tried to get up.
If only Utah hadn't been able "to run those same five plays," Cameron Smith said, after a game-high 15-tackle performance that deserved better, especially after getting blocked in the back out in space for the whole world to see -- except for the Pac-12 official right on the play -- on that Utah reverse. "I'm not a ref," Cameron said, of the no-call. He couldn't say it was a crack-back clip since he wasn't an official, just that "it was a block in the back" and way outside the tackle box.
If only we didn't have to constantly reference the officials, but then that would mean USC was in a different league. This is the Pac-12 after all.
If only Clay wouldn't have had to say "how proud I am of the kids in that room and the performance they just gave." That's loser's talk.
If only he didn't have to go over the stat sheet the first thing he said talking about "balance" on the offense in a game that could not have been more unbalanced when it mattered most, those last 19 plays, when USC's offense could have headed for the locker room. Their night was complete. Utah wasn't giving the ball back.
If only we didn't have to think how the Utes were having way too much fun beating USC -- again -- as they knew they would, even though they were down 24-10 with just a quarter and a half left.
If only we didn't tell ourselves that there's no way they're better than this USC team. Of course they're not. But they got more out of their players and coaches and fans and officials in an entire package than USC seems capable of putting together.
If only we didn't have to look back and realize that until that final drive, USC had outgained Utah, 466 yards to 363. It was that one-sided with Darnold 18 of 26 passing for 253 yards, and no INT leading the charge with another 41 yards rushing on nine carries.
If only we didn't have to wonder how a USC team that finally figured out how to run the ball could have lost this game.
If only we weren't here but that's where we are here. And we're not talking about Salt Lake City. And the only conclusion you can come to is that USC is not a place for learning on the job. Too many teams want to beat you as badly as this Utah team wanted to. Too many teams will beat you if you let them and they believe that they can.
And if only, for all the reasons USC players and fans understand right now, you did not have believe -- if you're a Trojan -- that you some day will do whatever it takes to win games like this.
If only you will not be "proud" and "heart-broken" any more and talking about "competing" and "balance." if only that never happens again. You will talk about winning. But there's the rub. If you're Clay Helton and your team has lost six of its last eight under you, you can't. It's not what you do.
Winning is what other teams do to you. Sure, JuJu said that maybe "there'll be one of those three-way ties [in the South] where one team beats one team and another team beats the other team and . . . " Just like last year. Only it's not. Last year, USC whipped Utah to start its comeback. And that eliminated the Utes form the tiebreaker. This time, it's USC that's probably eliminated.
Too bad. A win here under Darnold would have set USC up for a four-game October win swing that would have had them going into the Oregon game at Homecoming with five straight wins. That team would have had a real chance.
But to do that, it would have had to win here. And for 51:35, USC was. Only it didn't. Again. In a game it should have won. No way to sugar-coat it. USC got beat by a tougher, smarter, luckier team taat believed it could do whatever it had to do to win this game. USC did not. And now it's 1-3.
And if, as Clay said about the demotion of Max Browne, "football is a production-based business," then despite all that USC offense, it produced a mere two touchdowns. Better than the one at Stanford. But not nearly good enough.
They measure you in wins and losses. This team is losing. And now it's playing for pride -- and table scraps. USC football deserves better. Those players deserve better, even with the mistakes.
But as has been the case for the last half-dozen years, USC, the school, has not provided USC, the football team, with what it takes to win. And that's not right. And will have to change.
And yet all the changes Friday, with Sam and the run game and the receivers weren't enough. Ask most USC fans and they'll tell you the change that needs to be made.
They'll also tell you the good news for next year when the USC football coach will have a terrific quarterback to build his team around. And maybe a team that believes it will win games like this.
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