Was it a USC letdown or a great comeback? Coach John Robinson admitted he wasn’t sure.
The Trojans played less than 20 minutes of good football in the Freedom Bowl, and it was barely enough. After building a 28-0 lead in the first 16:26, they didn’t do much right until they ran out all but eight seconds of the final 3:56.
“I honestly don’t know whether we let down or Utah just played great,” Robinson said. “But give Utah credit. They really showed me something the way they battled back.
“We were impressed with them before the game and even more so during the game.
“We had a lot of things go right early, but the Utes never quit.
“The game pointed out one of our major problems. We have an offense that is beautiful in the air and can score in a hurry. But victories will never be easy until we develop a running game. That will be our No. 1 priority next year. You can’t just keep throwing the ball all the time.
“I thought both Johnnie (Morton) and Rob (Johnson) had tremendous games. But both were bothered by the flu. Johnny will be a great pro and Rob is already a star. By next season he should be among the very best in college football.”
Robinson praised the entire Freedom Bowl experience. He enjoyed it all he said, though his antics on the sidelines belied it as Utah rallied.
Asked if he attached any significance to the Trojans’ play after last year’s loss to Fresno State, Robinson said, “Forget last year. We were only interested in this game. We came here to enjoy ourselves and we did.”
With the Trojans leading 28-13 and half of the final quarter remaining, the Trojans had a fourth and seven on the Utah 27. Although kicker Cole Ford was sending kickoffs through the end zone, Robinson decided to go for the first down.
“We felt it was too long a kick (44 yards),” he said. “The thing to do was keep them backed up.”
A pass lost a yard and the fired-up Utes responded by driving 72 yards to a touchdown. Then a two-point conversion gave Utah a chance to win it.
“That’s when we responded, controlled the ball and won the game.”
Johnson, who had one stretch early in which he couldn’t miss, completing nine passes in a row, felt the key play to win the game was a third-and-five pass that Morton turned into a 12-yard play.
Morton, too sick from flu to attend the postgame conference, scored the first two touchdowns and had seven catches for 121 yards. In the second half he caught three for 26 yards.
“He was open all night,” Johnson said. “Partly because Utah put pressure on me and partly because I was tiring, I couldn’t get the ball to him.
“I woke up this morning with the flu and a temperature. Everything went perfect early, but give Utah credit. They really battled back. They were impressive.”