LOS ANGELES — Make no mistake about it. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham doesn't believe in "moral victories." In fact, as far as he's concerned, they simply don't exist.
Whittingham, however, was encouraged by some things he saw in the Utes' 23-14 loss to USC Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Topping the list in the inaugural Pac-12 game was his team's toughness.
"They hung in there and kept swinging from start to finish," Whittingham said after noting other positives, like how well the defense played and how the offense started slow but picked up rhythm as the game progressed, adding that he thought quarterback Jordan Wynn did a nice job.
The big negative, though, was the finish. USC blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the game and returned it for a touchdown as time expired.
"We've got to find a way to win close games like that," Whittingham said.
The Utes had their chances, but the final one evaporated when USC's Matt Kalil, a 6-foot-7 lineman, blocked Coleman Peterson's kick that could have tied things up and forced overtime.
"It just hit me in the forearm," Kalil said. "Luckily I'm a tall guy."
Teammate Torin Harris then scooped it up for a touchdown, although it wasn't officially posted until almost two hours after the game ended. In the end, however, the late score didn't really matter.
The same may also be said about the outcome. Things are a little different in a BCS conference.
"One thing that's for sure is we control our own destiny. USC is not going to be able to go to the postseason," Whittingham said in reference to the Trojans not being able to represent the South Division in the Pac-12 championship game because of NCAA sanctions. "If we take care of business, we control our own destiny. So in a sense this game did nothing to change that. But it's still a tough loss to swallow."
The Utes left the field disappointed. They came to win and expected to prevail.
"They made a couple of more plays than we did. That's what it came down to," said wide receiver DeVonte Christopher. "That's what happens when two evenly matched teams get together."
Utah forced three turnovers (two fumbles and an interception) to offset statistical shortfalls in yardage, time-of-possession and first downs.
"We played our heads off tonight. I'm happy with the way our team played," said wide receiver Dres Anderson. "I just wish we could have come out with the win."
The Utes never held a lead, but did close the gap after falling behind by 10 points on two occasions.
"We know crazy things can happen. We know we can come back from anything," said linebacker Chaz Walker. "We just battled back. We did what we could and they made the last play."
And that, obviously, isn't easy to handle.
Wynn acknowledged it's frustrating to lose like that. The Utes, he continued, needed more big plays on offense.
Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said something similar about how things went on the other side of the ball.
"I think going into this game we knew what we were going to give them and what we wanted to take away. I think we accomplished that but . . . there were just too many big plays," Sitake said. "There were some times where I think we should have made the play and missed assignments."
That, he explained, is on him.
"As a coach, I've got to fix those and then give our guys a better chance to win the game," Sitake concluded.
The next opportunity to do so comes Saturday at BYU.
"It's Rivalry Week," said defensive end Joe Kruger. "So we've got to bring it."
The key, Whittingham noted, is for the Utes to just keep working and stick together.
"I'm sure this football team will do it," he said. "It's a great group of leaders that we have."
EXTRA POINTS: After starting at left tackle against Montana State, Miles Mason was the starter at left guard against USC . . . Wynn topped 200 yards passing (238) for the ninth time in his career. He has yet to throw an interception this season . . . John White led the Utes with 56 yards rushing and one touchdown . . . Christopher topped receivers in the game with 11 catches for 136 yards and a score . . . Nick Marsh averaged 40.9 yards on seven punts for Utah. He pinned four kicks inside the 20 . . . Walker led the Utes with 11 tackles. Matt Martinez was second with 10 . . . Cornerback Ryan Lacy had an interception, while Conroy Black and Boo Andersen recovered fumbles.
Cougars and Utes
Utah (1-1) at BYU (1-1)
Saturday, 7:15 p.m.
LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, 700 AM