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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah fans celebrate touchdown as the University of Utah plays USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the first ever PAC-12 game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

LOS ANGELES — Below the famous Olympic torch, beneath the ancient stadium, beyond the reach of the ghosts long gone, it was a loss just the same for the Utes. In the here and now, all they can say is they got their chance and missed.

Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the University of Utah took some swings, landed a few, and left saying it's not taking "close" as an answer anymore, following a 23-14 loss to USC.

"Absolutely not. There's no moral victory here," said lineman John Cullen. "We don't want to see if we can play SC 17-14 (23-14), we want to beat SC."

Weird part is, the Utes weren't far from that. Want to know if they belong in the Pac-12? They certainly have the right attitude.

"I'm extremely proud of the way the guys hung in there," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "But no way am I trying to point to the game as a moral victory, because there's no such thing — not in my mind."

That's a good idea, because they shouldn't. They didn't play terribly well yet still had a decent chance to win their first game among the privileged class. But Coleman Petersen's attempt to tie the game on a last-second field goal was blocked and returned for a touchdown. As Linda Rondstadt put it, "Our dreams of endless summer, were just grandiose."

Not if you ask them. The Utes played poorly enough to lose and well enough to win. They gained a mediocre 319 yards but recovered two fumbles and picked off one pass. They also allowed two sacks and struggled early to contain the Trojan lines on both sides of the ball. After punching in a touchdown in the third quarter to pull within three, they got possession with a minute left in the game. A first down and a penalty put them on the Trojan 24, but USC's Mat Kalil blocked the kick and killed the suspense.

Like so many aspiring starlets and studs, the Utes had failed to make it big in L.A.

In reality, the kick probably had no chance of success anyway. Asked if he had to jump to block it, Kalil said, "No, it just hit me in the forearm. Luckily, I'm a tall guy."

For all the talk of Utah's mega-step up to the Pac-12, so far the league has been something south of impressive. USC barely got past Minnesota, one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, 19-17. Oregon disappointed with a 40-27 loss to LSU, Arizona lost by 23 to Oklahoma State and Washington had to sweat out a 3-point win over tiny Eastern Washington. Oregon State is already 0-2 after two embarrassing losses: 29-28 to Sacramento State and 35-0 to Wisconsin.

Yet as much as the Utes tried, it seemed early they were slightly awestruck by the fact they are now in the conference that produced Reggie Bush, O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen. It would be hard to blame them. Past years, the Utes would have been getting ready for another trip to Albuquerque.

If the traffic jams or the history of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum didn't get to them, you had to figure this would: a $60 parking fee next to the stadium.

Now they knew they were in the high rent district.

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Despite some early jitters and a few bad foul-ups, the Utes eventually settled in. They fell behind by 10, pulled within three. Wash, rinse, repeat. At times they were flummoxed by their own inefficiency, wasting good field position and committing penalties mostly from over-anxiousness.

But in honesty USC could have said the same.

Prior to the game, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said, "There's going to be a sense of discovery this year for Utah."

If nothing else, they discovered losing stinks, no matter who or where you're playing.

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