I would not have switched the decision at the end. —Kyle Whittingham
LOS ANGELES — Utah went for it Saturday night at USC.
In the end, though, the 23rd-ranked Utes were stopped in their bid to upset the 13th-ranked Trojans. Quarterback Troy Williams was tripped up by defensive back Ajene Harris on a two-point conversion attempt with 42 seconds remaining, leaving the visitors on the short end of a 28-27 decision at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“Certainly there are no moral victories in this profession but I’m proud of every kid in that locker room. I love them and they’re a bunch of warriors and they never quit,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “And I’m proud to be their coach. We came up one play short to win the game. They made the play at the end to win the game and we didn’t. That’s the short version.”
The potential game-winning conversion followed a 1-yard touchdown run by Williams that put Utah in position to win at USC for the first time since 1916.
“I would not have switched the decision at the end,” Whittingham said. “We played about 80 snaps on defense and had major problems stopping them.”
After the failed two-point conversion, USC recovered the ensuing onside kick to prevail.
“It was supposed to be a play-action, the tight end sneaking out to the other side,” said Williams, who wound up completing 16 of 27 passes for 262 yards. “They covered him pretty well and I just tried to make a play at the end.”
The Trojans improved to 6-1 overall and 4-1 in Pac-12 play. The Utes, meanwhile, suffered their second straight setback and dropped to 4-2 and 1-2. They host Arizona State on Saturday.
The outcome spoiled several bright first-half performances by the Utes. Williams, who grew up in nearby Carson, California, threw for a touchdown and caught a pass for another as the Utes built a 14-point lead before halftime. Running back Zack Moss netted 113 yards rushing during that span (he finished with a career-high 141) and the defense recovered three fumbles.
There was a momentum shift, though, when play resumed. USC began chopping away at the deficit. The Trojans marched 98 yards on 16 plays, taking 5:33 off the clock, for a third-quarter touchdown. A 17-yard pass from quarterback Sam Darnold to tight end Tyler Petite ignited the comeback. Along the way, the Heisman Trophy candidate hit wide receiver Tyler Vaughns for a 10-yard completion on fourth-and-9.
Trailing 21-14 at the end of three quarters, USC’s rally picked up steam in the final 15 minutes. The Trojans posted another sustained drive — going 88 yards on 11 snaps — to pull even with 13:34 on the clock. A short throw from Darnold to tight end Josh Falo provided the touchdown.
Although Utah tried to slow things down after that — converting on a fourth-and 1 situation from its own 30 on a run by Williams — the drive ended with a punt.
USC took possession on its own 7-yard line with 8:31 to go. Runs by Darnold (14 yards) and tailback Ronald Jones (15 yards) helped the Trojans move near midfield. Jones went on to add a 26-yard burst before eventually reaching the end zone on an 11-yard run. The touchdown came with 4:54 remaining.
Utah answered with its score in the closing minute to set up the dramatic conclusion.
A wild exchange led to the game’s first score. One play after USC linebacker Cameron Smith intercepted a pass by Williams just inside the Utah red zone, the Utes turned things around — and then some.
The reversal began when linebacker Kavika Luafatasaga forced a fumble by Darnold. The ball bounced into the hands of safety Marquise Blair, who returned it 18 yards for a touchdown. Kicker Matt Gay added the PAT as the Utes took a 7-0 lead with 6:08 remaining in the opening quarter.
It proved to be short-lived, however.
USC fired back just 81 seconds later with a 52-yard touchdown throw from Darnold to Petite. Chase McGrath followed with the extra-point kick to knot the score at 7-7.
The Utes had an opportunity to regain the lead late in the quarter, but a 33-yard field goal attempt by Gay was wide right.
Utah’s next possession proved to be more productive, ending with a touchdown involving some trickery. A 5-yard scoring strike from receiver Demari Simpkins to Williams, who caught the ball after a handoff, put the Utes back on top with 13:10 to go in the first half. Moss powered the drive by rushing for 50 of the 55 yards covered.
Leading 14-7, Utah recorded a third takeaway when Nick Heninger recovered what was ruled a backward pass by USC that landed on the turf. Nine plays and 79 yards later, the Utes doubled their lead. A 33-yard touchdown toss from Williams to Simpkins, along with another PAT from Gay, made it 21-7 with 4:49 left in the second quarter.
It stayed that way throughout the balance of the half. Utah, paced by 113 yards rushing from Moss, held a 272-262 edge in total offense over the first two quarters. USC had a 14-13 edge in first downs.
Utah’s defense made an impact early when lineman Bradlee Anae put an end to USC’s opening possession. The sophomore recovered a fumble on a bad exchange from Darnold to Jones. The first of three takeaways by the Utes prior the intermission ended on the Utah 34-yard line.