Every strand of hope the USC Trojans had of winning Saturday night at Utah came because of the generosity of their hosts.
Michael Pittman Jr.’s 34-yard touchdown catch, as stirring as it was, wouldn’t have happened if two Utah defenders didn’t let the ball fly past their hands into Pittman’s behind them.
Jay Tufele’s 48-yard rumble down the sideline for a fumble return touchdown, as awe-inspiring as it was, wouldn’t have happened if Tyler Huntley didn’t lose control of the ball on John Houston’s sack, or if the ball didn’t bounce perfectly into Tufele’s hands.
After those two plays gave USC an improbable two-touchdown lead, the Utes stopped being so giving, and they further exposed the Trojans’ inability to manufacture consistent offense while methodically churning out yards themselves.
Utah left USC’s defense, which had played with plenty of gusto in the first half, sapped of energy and gasping for air in the shadows of the snow-capped mountains above Rice-Eccles Stadium on the way to 34 consecutive points and a 41-28 bludgeoning of USC that felt like an avalanche.
The Trojans’ early cushion was nothing more than a mirage. Apparently, so was the momentum they had created in winning three straight games.
For the second consecutive week, USC could not run the football, rushing 29 times for 83 yards (2.9 yards per carry) when adjusting for sacks.
This was no surprise because the Utes came into the game with the second-ranked rush defense in the country. But this week, JT Daniels chucking bombs to his talented receivers could not save them. The plays weren’t there to be made, and the Trojans converted none of their 10 third downs in the first three quarters.
“When we sat there and got up 14-0 and had the three-and-outs,” USC coach Clay Helton said, “I wish we would have had a more effective run game.”
The Trojans’ last hope of survival, if one was willing to even allow a glimmer of positivity, came late in the third quarter courtesy of another Utes gift, a Britain Covey fumble on a punt return that handed them the ball at the Utah 14. That series, though, ended just like all of the ones before it, with USC unable to convert a third down, and Daniels flinging a prayer into the end zone on fourth down that was intercepted by Utah’s Jaylon Johnson.
Daniels was hit in the head after the throw and fell to the turf. He lay there, confused, before getting up and jogging off the field. It would be Daniels’ last pass of the night, ending his worst game as a Trojan in which he completed six of 16 passes for 89 yards and one touchdown and two interceptions.
Helton said that Daniels was taken out of the game because “he got dinged in the head” and that USC will learn more about his status for Arizona State next week.
USC, which fell to 4-3 and 3-2 in the Pac-12, scored a couple of late touchdowns with backup Matt Fink under center, but there should be no confusion: This was a blowout, the worst loss of a season that would be slipping away if not for a run of four games coming up for the Trojans in which they will be favored to win.
“We didn’t do good enough tonight to win the football game,” Helton said, “a very critical football game for this stretch run of the Pac-12. … It’s my job to make sure over these last games that we put ourselves in position to win the South.”
If USC wins its next four games and Utah, now 5-2 and 3-2, loses one, the Trojans would win the South. The Utes’ slate is much tougher — at UCLA, at Arizona State, Oregon and at Colorado — which means this flawed USC team is still the odds-on favorite to play for the league title Nov. 30.
But after this game, a return trip to Santa Clara won’t be fooling anyone. This was Helton’s chance to prove he and his staff had improved the Trojans and brought them back to a more competitive stature.
Saturday night’s defeat felt eerily similar to the loss at Texas, when USC took a 14-3 lead early and then coughed up 34 unanswered points to the Longhorns. Only, in that one, it was just the third game, and the Trojans had actually strung together a couple of offensive drives in taking that early lead.
There was nothing going Saturday, especially in the running game.
“I wouldn’t say demoralizing,” Helton said. “I would say they played better than us tonight. It’s my job, and I’ll keep saying that, it’s my job to make sure that this team wins.”