Much like their first season in the Pac-12 conference when they started 0-4, the Utes' early Pac-12 play in 2012 has been less than encouraging.
Unlike their Sept. 22 contest at Arizona State, Utah was competitive with USC and made for interesting TV under the ESPN cameras Thursday. But again, the Trojan offense — and passing game in particular — was too overwhelming as the Utes lacked half a step vs. their opponent.
Offense: Quarterback Jon Hays, continuing his second tour as spot-player-turned-team-anchor, played decently — if you focus on completion percentage. Hays went 19-of-32 but totaled just 160 yards, meaning that he averaged a measly five yards per completion.
A 3-of-12 third-down completion rate nullifies many of those connections, too. He tossed two scores, but he picked the worst time to throw his pick, with his team trailing by 10 with time waning in the fourth quarter. On the play, USC cornerback Nickell Robey was able to turn a close game into a blown-out game with a 38-yard pick-six, giving the Trojans a commanding 17-point lead just moments after a field goal separated the clubs.
John White IV bounced back from an embarrassing performances in Tempe, Ariz. with a respectable 13-carry, 68-yard night (but no game-breaking plays). Perhaps the question, then, should have been why White's number wasn't called more? The Utes ran an imbalanced offense with 38 passing plays and 16 less plays on the ground.
With three different receivers totaling five catches apiece, at least Hays knows how to spread it around. Still, one must consider Travis Wilsons' 4-of-6 effort in leading the Ues to a touchdown with seconds remaining. That drive alone accounted for more than half of the Utes' total offense in the second half. Also, what was with 13 penalties? Grade: C-
Defense: It's not a good day for this group when an opposing QB throws for 303 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, even if it was Heisman candidate Matt Barkley. He certainly rebounded from his early miscue when Nate Fakahafua football-robbed him for a touchdown.
The Utah defensive backs on Sept. 22 allowed three Sun Devil receivers to total 24 catches, and Thursday was arguably worse. With 12 receptions for 192 yards and a score, Marqise Lee was unanswerable, and Robert Woods (six receptions for 69 yards) often didn't get a response, either. The Utes were outgained 433-304 and had less time of possession. This defense may have allowed just 21 points a game entering the contest, but the question it ought to answer is whether it will be able to contain Pac-12 offenses this year, especially through the air. Surely, it will be a sticking point for ex-defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham. Grade: C-
Special Teams: Kicker Coleman Petersen probably surprised no one with another missed field-goal attempt, even though it was lengthy (48 yards) and partially blocked. At least he was bailed out somewhat by USC's Andre Heidari, who went just 1-of-3. Punter Sean Sellwood was once again a gem with a 46.5-yard average on four tries. The return game on either side was largely inconsequential. Grade: C
Overall: Not many expected the Utes to enter this particular season as world-beaters, but just two wins through five games may come as a surprise, even without Jordan Wynn. After all, Hays proved he can win at this level last season.
Then again, he and the team waited a while to get going in the Pac-12 last year, too (an 0-4 start), so perhaps everyone is just experiencing a bit of deja vu. You'd think at least from Hays' end, however, the early Pac-12 defeats wouldn't be necessary since he already had such experiences last year.
No one can place the defeat on just one guy, however. The entire offense must be more fluid in order to keep good opposing defenses — many of that type are still on the schedule — on their toes, and that won't happen if the offense throws the ball almost twice as much as it runs it. That's especially the case when Hays is far from a legitimate deep ball threat. Add re-considerations for the defense, and it appears as though the Utes will need to do some rethinking if they want to elude mediocrity. Grade: C
Rhett Wilkinson attends Utah State University and is the co-founder of Aggie BluePrint, USU's first student magazine. He's previously been an intern for the Deseret News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @wilklogan