SALT LAKE CITY -- They were that close to making it. That close.
They were that one season-shattering, career-finishing 19-play-allowing drive away from getting a chance to come home to LA with an exciting young multi-talented quarterback in Sam Darnold with the dash and flash a USC quarterback should have as he leads USC to where so many hoped it could go the rest of the way.
They had found themselves.
Found an offense they always knew they had, with explosive players in so many places and a solid offensive line that could clear the way.
Found a courageous young team that had stood up to the hostile Rice-Eccles “Blackout” crowd and a tough Utah defense and even tougher weather and, of course, Pac-12 officials just doing what they do when USC is involved.
And they’d have survived. Turned it around. Gotten back to the Coliseum at 2-2 and more importantly 1-1 in the Pac-12 South with an early win over a division rival and the chance to run the table in October against the likes of Arizona State, Colorado, Cal and Arizona.
Put that run together and with a win at Utah, all of those would have certainly been possible, and that’s a five-game win streak – and a 6-2 record (5-1 in the Pac-12) with Oregon coming in for Homecoming.
With that sort of momentum, USC would have been the pick in that one. What’s that make it? 7-2, 5-1 in the Pac-12 – with toughies at Washington and UCLA and a finish against Notre Dame.
But to have a chance at any of that, USC needed a win Friday night in Salt Lake City. And up 24-10 early in the second half, it was there for the taking. Or the giving away.
USC chose the latter. It gave Utah life with an ineligible receiver downfield. Sure it was a bad call, late, not the spirit of the rule, away from the play and completely not any part of anything.
But you do have to realize you can’t flop, trip and fall past the line of scrimmage on a run-pass option with Sam pulling the trigger and give Pac-12 people the chance to turn games around. No penalty there and USC scores and wins. Game is out of reach. And all the above is possible.
Or you can’t fumble the first three times you have the ball in a game that could have had USC blowing the Utes out and sending their black-clad fans home at halftime. But that didn’t happen either. A short week of practice without full pads or full hitting maybe hadn’t prepared you for the early contact instead of an early blowout.
And then if USC hadn’t interfered on a Utah third-and-10 on their own 7, 93 yards and 16 plays away from winning the game with less than five minutes left and Utah down to its last shot. The screams of joy from Ute fans indicated they knew they had one last life. But USC couldn’t do it and the Utes could.
It was that close. Maybe if your best defender, so good for much of the game, could have made one more play against the pass. Or your front seven run-stoppers, especially in that drive’s two fourth-down situations, could have found a way to fight through even though they’d been on the field for some 75 plays and 38 minutes at the time.
But no, that didn’t happen. Any one of those would have changed the outcome of this game. Would have sent USC’s Trojans home heroes. With a chance. And a bounce in their step.
And a belief in their coaches, even a head coach like Clay Helton who they all very much care for but who now has lost six of his last eight games at USC. It would have been 3-5 and one win in a row. And for a coach who was an Arkansas State assistant six years ago before Lane Kiffin discovered him and Steve Sarkisian kept him, winning that last game, that winnable game, is all he’s got.
And now he doesn’t have that. So getting Darnold going doesn’t much help him here. Nothing does.
And most of all, lost was a chance to make something of this season. Something almost special after the 1-2 start. Only now USC is 1-3 and 0-2 and at the bottom of the Pac-12. And if you thought USC didn’t get any calls before, wait until there’s no reason for Pac-12 officials to pull USC through.
Although there is a flip side to that. Needing to finish up 5-3 to get bowl-eligible, maybe USC gets the calls its opponents often get from a league that as much as it doesn’t much care for the Trojans, does iike to brag about its depth and how many bowl teams it has – so there’s that.
By the numbers
*** 81-59: That's the disparity in offensive plays between the teams with Utah controlling the ball so much more than USC although if you subtract the final 19-play drive, or if USC could have stopped Utah and took the ball away and ran some clock itself, that difference was a mere 62-59 after USC's final punt giving the ball back to Utah with 5:37 left.
*** 2-6: That's USC's record the last eight games under Clay Helton. luckily for him, one of those two was UCLA.
*** 3-0, 1/2-3: For three full games, against two of the toughest, most physical teams in the nation, USC had no lost fumbles. In a single first half against Utah, on its first three possessions, the Trojans lost three.
*** 46,133: For the 41st straight game, despite the awful weather, Utah sold out Rice-Eccles Stadium with the 22th largest crowd of all-time here.
*** 9 for 41: Haven't seen numbers like that in a long while. Those are the rushing totals for USC QB Sam Darnold in his first start, an average of 4.6 yards a carry -- and that factors in a sack.
*** 1-5, 6-49: Great first half for USC penalty-wise with just one, terrible second half with six for 44 and a couple of game-losers (Damien Mama's ineligible receiver downfield and Iman Marshall's pass interference).
*** 3-33, 2-10: Utah, meanwhile, suffered almost not at all in the second half with just two penalties for 10 yards after getting three for 33 in the first half. Hmmm.
*** 37:39 to 22:21: No wonder the USC defense faded in the final quarter. The Trojans were on the field 15:16 more.
*** 1: That's the number of USC punts. First question: How do you lose a game when you only had to punt the ball one time? OK, three lost fumbles for one thing. Then there was that punt, the 30-yarder with just over 5:30 left in the game, set Utah up for the game-winning 93-yard drive.
*** 4 of 4, 0 for 0: How's that for performing under pressure. Utah went for it four times on fourth down, twice on that final, game-winning drive, and made it every time. USC meanwhile did not go for it once on fourth down and as a result, did not make any.
They said it
USC COACH CLAY HELTON: “I was extremely proud of the job we did offensively with the balance. We rushed the ball for 213 yards, 6.5 a carry, and balanced that off with 253 yards passing.”
UTAH OG ISAAC ASIATA: He recovered the Utah fumble in the end zone for what would allow the Utes to come back and win” Those are the games you dream about when you’re a little kid, playing teams like that and winning. It’s a childhood dream come true . . . That last [win over USC] was my favorite game of my career until today.. I am at a loss for words. It’s very emotional and satisfying to work our tails off and get the win.”
UTAH QB TROY WILLIAMS: On beating USC: "It means a lot. I got a call from everyone in my hometown [Carson] and it means a lot. It was my dream to go to USC and it’s a dream to compete against and beat them.”
UTAH COACH KYLE WHITTINGHAM: “We kept fighting for all 60 minutes . . . I was disappointed on the Adoree’ Jackson return because we served it up on a silver platter. USC has tremendously talented athletes all over the place, incredible talent. Our guys hung in there and slugged it out. Our assistants put the plan together and I’m proud of them.”
MORE WHITTINGHAM: “Our offensive line was so physical and USC was not getting into our backfield. We had a lot of confidence . . . We have mentally tough guys who believe in what we’re doing and a great belief in our locker room.”
HELTON ON SAM DARNOLD: “. . . the arena was never too big for him whether he was playing in high school or against Alabama and Stanford. You walk into a hostile environment like this on a rainy night and go out there and do what he did and throw for 235 yards and adds 41 yards worth of rushing. I thought for a guy making his first start, this is as much as you could hope for.”
USC’S JUSTIN DAVIS: On the sudden success of the USC run game: “We’ve always had this [the run-pass option] in our offense. Sam is just much more comfortable running them . . . we can do that with Sam.” .
Injuries here mostly to the Trojans pride . . . Chuma Edoga traveled with the team but watched the game in street clothes after a bout with stomach flu Wednesday had him miss practice while being given three liters of IV fluids . . . Two O-linemen limping after the game were Zach Banner and Viane Talamaivao.
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