Coming off a tight loss to Stanford last Saturday, the Utes had a matchup against another California school in the USC Trojans. Utah put the first points up on the scoreboard with a Marquise Blair fumble return for a touchdown, but Sam Darnold struck right back with a 52-yard pass to tight end Tyler Petite. The second quarter was all Utes with Troy Williams throwing a touchdown pass to Demari Simpkins and then Simpkins returning the favor with a little trick pass back to Williams for seven more points less than 10 minutes later.
Utah was sitting pretty at halftime with a 21-7 lead. But the second half belonged to the Trojans. Sam Darnold led his team back by scoring 21 unanswered points to take a 28-21 lead. Williams marched the Utes down in the fourth quarter with time running out and scored a rushing touchdown. Coach Kyle Whittingham decided to go for two points, but the try failed as Williams didn't see Darren Carrington II open in the back of the end zone. This resulted in a 28-27 victory for the Trojans.
It is no secret that the red zone efficiency has not been great for the Utes when it comes to scoring touchdowns. How bad have they been? How about T-111th in the red zone when looking to score six points. To start the game, the Utes began 0/2 with an interception by Williams and a drive that stalled, resulting in a missed field goal. Zack Moss was the highlight for the Utes' offense with a career-high 141 yards rushing, but he barely touched the rock in the second half.
Furthermore, lead receiver Carrington had only 9 yards on two catches. Williams did his best to make up for this lack of production by spreading the ball around to eight receivers on the night. But not converting on the two-point conversion at the end of the game summed up Utah's continued struggle as the field gets shorter and the pressure mounts.
In the first half, Utah's defense looked ferocious with three takeaways and one defensive touchdown. Early on, as the Utes put pressure on Darnold, the more bad decisions he seemed to make. But it was a tale of two halves, as the Utah defense broke down in the second half. The Utes couldn't get off the field as Darnold and the Trojans continued to make big plays to keep the sticks moving. USC scored touchdowns on drives of 98, 88 and 93 yards. Three long drives of 80 yards were converted by the Trojans. Last year, the Utes only allowed five drives of that distance the entire season. Darnold amassed 358 passing yards while running back Ronald Jones rushed for 111, breaking through some massive holes.
Once again, a missed field goal by Matt Gay ultimately could have been the deciding factor. After starting the season 14/14, Gay is now 2/4 in his last two contest. With the Utes' offense really struggling to score touchdowns in the red zone, Gay will surely be a busy kicker for the rest of the season. Mitch Wishnowsky, however, was very strong punting the ball, with a 60-yarder as his long on the evening. He even made a tackle on a kickoff, saving the Utes from getting wrecked on a return.
Of course the main item talked about for the next week will concern the offensive play call at the end of the game. But first, remember back to the furth and 1 play call to keep the drive alive as Williams bootlegged and passed to a wide-open Siale Fakailoatonga downfield. A bold coaching call paid big dividends. However, the same isn't said for the last offensive play. Sure, Whittingham took a risk and lost. That is what he will have to deal with, and so will offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, as his play call broke down from the start. Or maybe Williams just missed Carrington in the back of the end zone. Either way, the red zone scoring is abysmal, and the Utes were a wreck on third-down conversions, going 4 for 14. That will not get you a win on the road.
The Utes played hard, ran out to a lead, but could not hold on. The offense continues to struggle scoring touchdowns and the defense is allowing big plays down the stretch. Hopefully, some good home cooking can get the Utes back on track next week against Arizona State.
Shane Reinhard is a graduate of Weber State University and a teacher and coach at St. Joseph Catholic High School in Ogden, Utah. Email: [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @hoopsters12.