SALT LAKE CITY — It couldn’t have been a better start for the Utah defense Thursday night against USC.
Two turnovers in the first two minutes resulted in two touchdowns, spotting the Utes a quick 14-0 lead.
But without getting enough help from the offense, the defense gradually wore down and gave up some big plays — one in particular in the fourth quarter — and the Utes couldn’t complete an upset bid over one of the most storied college teams in the nation.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called the play of the defense “a mixed bag" after his team lost 38-28 to USC.
“We made some big plays for sure in the first quarter. The D-line played hard and (USC) did a nice job of settling in in the second half."
After getting overpowered two weeks earlier in a 37-7 loss at Arizona State, the Utes made a bunch of changes on the defensive side of the ball.
Reshawn Hooker, a freshman from San Bernadino, Calif., was pulled out of a redshirt and started at middle linebacker along with Jason Whittingham, who had been a backup all season. Hooker finished with six tackles and Whittingham had five.
Also, Tenny Palepoi, a JC transfer from Snow College who wasn’t even on the two-deep chart, started on the defensive line, alongside Dave Kruger, Star Lotulelei and Nate Fakahafua. In the secondary, Reggie Topps made his first start at cornerback and Eric Rowe was back at safety after sitting out with an injury.
The Utes kept running different players into the game and before the end of the first quarter, Jacoby Hale, L.T. Filiaga and V.J. Fehoko had come in at linebacker, while Joe Kruger and Viliseni Fauonuku played on the defensive line.
On the second play of the game, Fakahafua stole the ball from quarterback Matt Barkley as he was tackling him and romped in 8 yards for a touchdown.
“What a way to start a ball game," said Fakahafua. “I just grabbed (Barkley) and ripped the ball away and started going for the end zone."
Then on USC’s next offensive possession, Lotulelei jumped on a fumble after blowing up the center at the 13-yard line.
But Barkley settled down after his disastrous two-fumble start and kept eluding Ute defenders just when they appeared to be closing in on him.
“They did a good job of making adjustments," said Lotulelei. “A big factor was not being able to get to Barkley. It’s frustrating. That’s why he’s the No. 1 quarterback in the nation."
The defense held the Trojans out of the end zone in the third quarter, but was burned by an 83-yard bomb from Barkley to Marqise Lee with the score just 24-21 at the time. Lee ran past safety Eric Rowe and avoided Ryan Lacy trying to catch up.
Whittingham called that play a “backbreaker," but said he was happy the way his whole team fought for 60 minutes. He said it was a step forward, as did senior captain Dave Kruger.
“We still lost, but the defense played a lot better. The offense played better," Kruger said. “So I think it was a step forward."