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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn (3)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)

Entering the season, it was no mystery that Utah’s defense was the strength of the team. Playing against their first Pac-12 opponent as a member of the conference, the Utes came up with enough big plays against Southern Cal to stay in the game late into the fourth quarter before losing, 23-14.

“Bend but don’t break” is how the oft-said phrase goes, and it was three takeaways — two forced and recovered fumbles and an interception — that prevented Utah from completely breaking defensively.

But considering the number of times the Utes allowed big plays from USC, maybe getting bent that much is as good as being broken.

Seven players caught balls and six had rushes for the Trojans, showing the balance and depth that the Pac-12 and other high-profile leagues are known for.

With all the struggles Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn has experienced so far, his perseverance helped the Utes stay in the game. It took Wynn 46 pass attempts, but he ended up with 238 yards, had a touchdown and didn’t throw an interception.

USC had its big three in the victory, with Marc Tyler — back from a one-game suspension — rushing for 112 yards on 24 carries, Robert Woods’ 100 yards on eight receptions and signal-caller Matt Barkley’s 261-yard, 20-of-32 performance.

The Utes lacked a strong running game against USC. John White IV — who was solid against Montana State in Utah’s opener last week — failed to get into a consistent groove, carrying the ball 19 times for 62 yards.

Reggie Dunn almost took it to the end zone on his only rush of the day, a 51-yard reverse sweep left that Dunn tight-roped on the sideline, then cut back into traffic before finally being brought down on the 1-yard line.

Wynn’s favorite target was DeVonte Christopher, who caught 11 passes for 136 yards and the score. But Dres Anderson also had some big receptions.

Anderson bailed Wynn out on a 17-yard one-handed grab that was thrown behind him. It was also Anderson who laid out for an 18-yard gain down the middle late in the fourth quarter on Utah’s final drive.

For the first time in its first two games, Utah committed a turnover, a White fumble in the first quarter.

After what could be called a warm-up against Montana State and their much-anticipated Pac-12 debut against a league opponent, the Utes will need to rachet up the intensity next week as they face their bitter rival, BYU.

Chris Peterson is a longtime sports writer, covering everything from high school preps to professional teams. He can be reached at chrispeterson7@msn.com.