SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham pinpointed a pair of pivotal plays in Thursday night's 38-28 loss to USC. Plays, he added, that the Trojans made and the Utes didn't.
Both came in the fourth quarter and lifted USC to victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium. An 83-yard touchdown pass from Matt Barkley to Marqise Lee and a 38-yard interception return for a score by Nickell Robey broke a close game open and extended the Trojans' lead to an insurmountable 38-21 with 9:30 left to play. Utah's lone score in response came with just 38 seconds remaining on a 5-yard touchdown run by Kelvin York.
"Most football games do come down to four or five momentum-type changing plays and the team that makes the most of them usually wins the game," Whittingham said a day after the Utes dropped to 2-3 overall and 0-2 in Pac-12 play with the loss to the 13th-ranked Trojans.
A negated scoring play late in the first half may have also played a role in the outcome. The Utes were penalized for having an illegal receiver downfield on a trick play that was capped by a 44-yard pass from Jon Hays to Kenneth Scott in the end zone.
"It's unfortunate we weren't able to get that touchdown," Whittingham said. "...That would have given us good momentum going in at halftime up 28-24."
Utah had good momentum early on. The Utes raced out to a 14-0 lead less than three minutes into the game after Nate Fakahafua returned a fumble 8 yards for a touchdown and Star Lotulelei set up a second score (an 11-yard TD pass from Hays to Scott) with another recovery.
"The defense did a great job putting us where we needed to be," Hays said. "A 14-0 lead is how you want to start against these guys."
It wasn't enough to seal the deal, however.
Barkley wound up completing 23-of-30 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns to lead a successful comeback by USC. The Heisman Trophy candidate was never sacked and Utah was never credited with a quarterback hurry.
"Not being able to get back there and get to Barkley was probably the biggest thing that hurt our defense tonight," Lotulelei said. "We can't give Barkley that kind of time and when we do that's what happens."
The Trojans wound up with 432 yards of total offense and 22 first downs.
"Give a lot of credit to SC. That's one talented football team right there," Whittingham said. "They've got a lot of ability and a lot of things going for them."
Despite the outcome, Whittingham also noted some positives for the Utes.
"First of all we played hard. We had great effort for the full 60 minutes, which is always going to give you a chance," he said. "If guys play hard it's going to give you a chance to win."
Whittingham was particularly pleased with the offensive line's improved pass protection and run-blocking. Hays threw for 160 yards and two touchdowns and running back John White averaged 5.2 yard per carry.
Utah's offense netted 304 yards.
"I think there's some things to build on. I think we did show progress," Whittingham said. "But the bottom line is you've got to get a 'W' and we weren't able to do that."
As such, he continued, everything needs to continue to improve.
The Utes gathered for a 7 a.m. film session on Friday and made corrections. They'll get the weekend off while coaches work on recruiting. Whittingham is confident the players will come back rejuvenated and ready to get after it again on Monday.
"You just keep working. You keep searching for answers," Whittingham said. "Everybody across the board has to get better — coaches and players alike."
EXTRA POINTS: Utah picked up a 2013 recruiting commitment from Gregory Reese, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound tight end from Arizona Western College. ... The loss snapped a streak of eight-straight wins by the Utes on Thursdays. ... Linebackers Reshawn Hooker and Jason Whittingham made their first career starts, as did defensive lineman Tenny Palepoi. ... Free safety Eric Rowe led Utah with a career-high 10 tackles. Strong safety Brian Blechen was second with nine. ... DeVonte Christopher, Dres Anderson and Jake Murphy each had five receptions. ... Sean Sellwood averaged 46.5 yards on four punts. He placed two inside the 20.
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