Brad Rock: Heart wasn't the Utes' problem, it was their heads

Published: Friday, Oct. 5 2012 12:19 a.m. MDT

USC Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley (7) during Pac-12 football in Salt Lake City Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012. An errant snap led to a Utah touchdown.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY – Oh, THAT Southern California.

The one from the history books. The one that showed up in the fourth quarter.

That Utah, too.

The one from 2011.

Two games into their Pac-12 season, the Utes are looking closer to their Johnny-come-lately 2011 selves than they had hoped. They had nice moments in their 38-28 loss to USC on Thursday, and they never called for mercy. But check out the numbers. Take away the 31-yard completion from Travis Wilson to Dres Anderson and it was a third sub-300-yard game.

The Utes still have little offense and a sometimes good defense.

Now comes the sinking realization they've been here before — a middling-or-below team in a fast league.

So plan on the usual talk about regrouping, focus and character. It might even work. Give the Utes some credit. It wasn't a blowout until then end, which is a lot like sticking to a diet … until shortly after lunch.

As expected, it was a full house at Rice-Eccles, the fourth-largest crowd in stadium history (46,037). It's not every day the USC Trojans pay a visit. Actually, it's not every century. Last time USC played at Utah was in 1917, shortly before the advent of the talking movie.

Who knew the next time they'd meet in Utah there would be talkies and even a Pac-12 Network?

In that game 95 years ago, the Trojans won 51-0. You might call it the game of the century because it was, in a sense. Since then, it has pretty much been all about the Trojans. They went on to win 11 national championships. Highest the Utes ever rose was a second-place finish in 2008.

Utah didn't fail to capitalize on such a high-profile event, this week. It ordered up a fly-over for the national anthem. The weather forecasters were under strict orders to deliver perfect football weather, which they did. During a break, the U. ski team was honored for finishing second nationally. (There's at least one area USC won't ever dominate the Utes.)

Utah's best hope was that somehow a loss to Stanford would have softened up the Trojans. And it did, for a while. USC fumbled on its first two possessions, leading to a14-0 Utah lead.

But one thing you know about the Trojans — they aren't just for show. No fewer than 14 players are on some publication's preseason watch list. On second thought, maybe they are for show. The marching band played in the streets of Park City on Wednesday. You might say the hills were alive.

USC, you have to love it. Its wide receivers coach is married to recording star Toya Martin and its defensive coordinator played a small part in the movie "The Blindside": himself.

Nothing like having your name up in lights.

Speaking of such, in 2009 USC was named "Program of the Decade" by Sports Illustrated. But are the Trojans all that and a bag of chips? Pretty much. This year the school's athletic department launched a program to reduce tailgate waste at football games. Makes sense. A lot of teams end up eating USC's exhaust.

What was, by most predictions, supposed to be a lopsided first half turned into a trip to Fantasyland for Utah. Its defense was immovable. Its offense was acceptable. The Utes were up 14-0 before the stoplights changed. The Utah team that got blown out early against Arizona State 12 days ago was nowhere to be seen.

In its place were the new and improved Utes. It started on the first possession when Nate Fakahafua swarmed in, stripped the ball from USC quarterback Matt Barkley, and scored. Next possession, USC bungled the snap. That time Utah's Star Lotulelei moved heaven and earth — not to mention most of the USC offensive line — to recover the ball. Soon after Utah was in the end zone on a pass to Kenneth Scott for the two-touchdown lead.

But when you're playing the Trojans, you don't get backsies. The Trojans finally took the lead, 24-21, near the end of the half, thanks to a Utah fumble. On the final possession of the half, two things became apparent. First, Utah offensive coordinator Brian Johnson has more than just a rudimentary approach. He ordered a double-reverse pass, which produced a 44-yard touchdown. But it was called back due to an ineligible receiver. That was compounded when Coleman Peterson's 47-yard field goal try was deflected.

The scoring didn't change until Barkley hooked up with Marquise Lee on an 83-yard score in the fourth quarter, followed shortly by a 38-yard pick six. Utah managed a respectability touchdown to end the scoring.

The good news for the Utes is that they have some heart. They didn't concede early. The bad news: They still have no offense. Also, 122 yards in penalties — one that cost them a touchdown — added up. USC had problems of its own, not the least being fumbles. Utah had three of its own, plus an interception.

Thus, Utah's biggest problems weren't in the heart, but the head.

email: rock@desnews.com

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