Over the crackling of two head coaches’ headsets, two decisions began to take form late Friday evening. In the fourth quarter, USC Coach Clay Helton faced a fourth down. A drive later, Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham faced a fourth down.
The choices each made would spring No. 24 Utah to a 31-27 comeback win, drop USC to a rare 1-3 start, and thrust the Trojans’ already wobbly season into further uncertainty.
For USC it was a fourth and three from Utah’s 37, up three points late. For Utah, a fourth and one from USC’s 23, a tying field goal well within range.
One went for it. One did not.
There were less than six minutes remaining, when, on the USC sideline, Helton awaited a spot after a third down. A long field goal was too risky. But if the spot were close …
The officials placed the ball three yards from the marker.
“If you don’t make that,” Helton said, “you put them basically 30 yards away from field-goal range.”
Out ran the punt team.
Seventy yards and almost five minutes later, now it was Utah’s turn. Whittingham paced the sideline. The game would swing on his decision: a 40-yard field goal to tie, or ground out one yard for a chance to win.
Whittingham’s thoughts, he would say later, turned to the surge Utah was getting against USC’s line.
“We were doing it all night,” Whittingham said. “Went back to the well again.”
“We had our opportunity tonight,” Helton said in a small room just beyond the end zone where Patrick had made his catch. “And we let it slip away.”
The loss, which dropped the Trojans to 0-2 in the Pac-12 Conference, further rumbled an unhappy team and fueled questions about Helton’s efficacy. He is now 1-5 since being named USC’s full-time head coach.
“I’m heartbroken for them,” Helton said. “I truly believe that we can be a really good football team. We’ve got to just finish with wins.”
“After the game we were all down,” quarterback Sam Darnold said outside the locker room. “But we have hope.”
The hope may be Darnold, who was confident and dynamic in his debut as the starter.
In the third quarter, he executed two of his best passes of the game, on consecutive plays. First, he placed a delicate pass in the pocket between the linebackers and safeties on a seam to Taylor McNamara for 21 yards. On the next play, he hung a raindrop to JuJu Smith-Schuster along the sideline for 35.
He finished 18 for 26 for 253 yards, plus another 41 yards on nine rushes, including a quarterback keeper when he helicoptered into the end zone.
“You walk into a hostile atmosphere like this on a rainy night and you go out there and do what he did?” Helton said. “As good as you could hope for.”
Darnold’s presence could not change one vexing problem. For the second game in a row, USC could not get out of its own way on offense. Against Stanford, it was penalties. Against Utah, it was fumbles.
Utah quarterback Troy Williams (3) celebrates with teammate Tim Patrick (12) after scoring against USC in the first half.(Rick Bowmer / AP)
Utah quarterback Troy Williams looks to pass the ball in the second quarter against USC.(Gene Sweeney Jr. / Getty Images)
USC’s Adoree’ Jackson runs a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter.(Gene Sweeney Jr. / Getty Images)
USC quarterback Sam Darnold looks to pass in the first quarter against the Utah.(Gene Sweeney Jr. / Getty Images)
USC’s Adoree’ Jackson tackles Utah’s Tim Patrick after a first down run in the second quarter.(Gene Sweeney Jr. / Getty Images)
USC defensive back Adoree’ Jackson runs the ball back for a touchdown in the first half against Utah.(Rick Bowmer / AP)
Utah quarterback Troy Williams scores against USC defensive back Adoree’ Jackson in the first half.(Rick Bowmer / AP)
Utah quarterback Troy Williams (3) scores a first quarter touchdown against USC.(Gene Sweeney Jr. / Getty Images)
Utah wide receiver Tim Patrick catches a pass against USC defensive back Adoree’ Jackson in the first half.(Rick Bowmer / AP)
Utah tight end Evan Moeai is tackled by USC inebacker Michael Hutchings in the first half.(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)
USC linebacker Cameron Smith tackles Utah running back Zack Moss in the first half.(Rick Bowmer / AP)
On the first drive, Justin Davis burst through a hole for 16 yards. He was hit. He fumbled. Utah recovered.
On the second drive, Darnold scampered on a quarterback draw for 14 yards. He was hit. He fumbled. Utah recovered.
On the third drive, Ronald Jones II took a handoff on a third and one. He wasn’t even hit. Yet he too fumbled, after bumping into center Nico Falah.
“Those extra possessions that we could’ve had earlier, those were the difference,” Jones said.
Sometimes, USC was just unlucky. Up 14 in the third quarter, USC’s Rasheem Green popped the ball loose on the goal line. The ball pinballed around, then dropped into a pile of bodies in the end zone. Had USC recovered, Utah might have been done. But an offensive lineman, Isaac Asiata, emerged from the pile, holding the ball high for a Utah score.
Davis eclipsed 100 yards in the half, to become USC’s first 100-yard rusher this season. But he was used sparingly in the second half. He finished with with 126 yards in 10 carries, with a touchdown.
“It’s really going to show what type of team you are to bounce back from this,” Davis said. “I don’t remember the last time we started off the season this bad.”
USC led by 10 points entering the fourth quarter. It surrendered a touchdown pass to Rae Singleton with less than 10 minutes remaining. On the final drive, Utah drove 93 yards.
After the game, Helton defended the fourth-down call. “You’ve got to trust your defense,” Helton said. “And I trust them.”
He continued: “Would I change the decision? No.”