I wasn't quite sure what to expect Saturday out of Utah because I still had doubts this team could hold its own against a superior opponent in their house. These doubts, obviously, were rooted in last year's play against TCU, Notre Dame and Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. As much as I wanted to dismiss those doubts outright, I couldn't because we really didn't know how this team would come out Saturday.
Sure, the Trojans might not be a great team and they very well could stumble a few times this season, but let's be honest, they're no worse than Notre Dame last year and the Irish, for most that game, wrecked the Utes. So even a marginally good BCS team gave the program a stinging loss last year.
Would that happen again this season?
At first, it appeared we were reliving the Notre Dame game. The offense couldn't find any rhythm and the game was quickly developing into a rout - as SC opened up a 10-0 lead.
I'm sure I am not the only one who had flashbacks to the three losses of 2010 and I even stated in the game thread that it appeared Kyle Whittingham had lost his Big Game Magic.
Fortunately, games aren't decided in the first quarter and, as Utah calmed down, they slowly got back into the game and because of it, the Utes, even in a loss, managed to turn some heads.
Was it pretty? At times. Did they play great? Not particularly. But I think, a month ago, if I had pegged the Utes as a three-point loser to the Trojans, with the game ending on a blocked field goal, I'm sure, as hard as it would be to accept such defeat, you would at least feel good about the end result - at least in the context of the overall season.
We did, after all, concede long ago this was going to be the most difficult game of the season because the Trojans, regardless of how inept their coaching can be at times, still have talent that rivals the best of the best in college football.
So Saturday, the Utes went down to SoCal, played a gritty game, came within a field goal of tying and left the Coliseum, hopefully, holding their heads high - because they never quit and regained the spirit that was lacking from this team last year in big-time games.
Yeah, I wanted a win. Yeah, the loss was painful. Yeah, if Utah had won, we'd be talking about potentially making it through a bulk of the season perfect. But it is what it is and the team now needs to regroup, fix their mistakes and beat BYU.
The grades after the jump...
Offense: B-minus - The offense was very one-dimensional for most of the game and considering that fact, it's actually pretty surprising they were so effective at times. The run game was, for a lack of a better word, marginal and had there been any consistent ground attack in this game, I think the outcome favors Utah - maybe by a touchdown or more.
With that said, I saw promise that things are turning around. Jordan Wynn did a complete 180 from the Notre Dame game last year and even though his shoulder continues to be an issue (I think it has to do with adjustment and not lingering injury issues), he played with a lot of heart and passion. Yeah, we can live on what ifs and I've seen some Ute fans toss around a few examples of where he should have thrown an interception - but he didn't and that's all that counts. In the end, driving Utah down field, he made the plays, specifically on fourth and ten that was perfectly executed and kept the game going.
The Utes did not lose because of Wynn. They lost because the running game lacked total consistency and the offensive line was shaky at best - forcing Wynn to scramble more than any of us would have liked.
In the end, though, they still played well enough to position the team for the win and, outside victory, that's all you can really ask for from a team.
I'd also like to point out how the offense really hurt when John White went out. I know this might contradict my first point, that there wasn't much run game, but White was still a bruiser, which is ironic considering his body type, and he could have made a huge difference earlier in the fourth when the Utes' drives stalled out and they were forced to punt. Unfortunately, White missed most every fourth quarter drive sans the final one, which, not coincidentally, was the best.
Props to Wynn, the receivers who are just nasty and even White for coming to play Saturday. It's tough going on the road and playing in front of 80,000 screaming fans against a program with NFL-talent at almost every position. I think people downplay how unassimilated this team is to one of the largest Pac-12 stadiums. This was their first time there and that is one of the biggest disadvantages the Utes have this season. Every other program outside Colorado has played at least one game in the Coliseum. They know the atmosphere, the playing surface and routines of that stadium.
For a first trip there in two lifetimes, the offense certainly held their own.
Of course, this can't be a B or higher because there were missed opportunities, only two scores and inconsistencies for much of the game.
Defense: B-plus - I gave the defense a B-plus solely because of the turnovers. You take those away and this game is an ugly, ugly loss where the Trojan offense just shreds Utah's defense. Of course, you can't take anything away from the defense because they did make the plays. They didn't luck into those turnovers, so even creating turnovers was a huge accomplishment for the unit.
What's more is that, in the fourth quarter when the team needed a stop the most, they stepped up every single time. They forced the Trojans to punt on every drive in that final quarter and it allowed the offense plenty of opportunities to score - to actually take the lead.
That was impressive because if you watched this game, there was one common theme: the Trojans would gain 4 or 5 yards on a run play and then picked apart the Utah secondary with short passes that would gain more yardage than they should have due to poor tackling.
However, in the fourth quarter, that never really happened.
After Whittingham was forced to punt with a little less than three minutes left (I think), I was skeptical of the decision. I was not convinced the defense could force a three and out and, with the help of a USC penalty, that is exactly what they did. The defense did everything in its power to win this game in that fourth quarter.
Special Teams: C - No excuse for a blocked field goal. That was ugly and cost the Utes the game. It negates everything positive done by the special teams. We knew the kicking game could be an issue, but I don't think we expected it to arise because the offensive line can't contain pressure.
I don't know if the kick would've sailed through, but it would've been nice if it at least had a chance. Alas...
- Norm Chow: B - No complaints about the play calling. I thought Chow called a very good game that would have won the game against most teams the Utes play this season.
- Kalani Sitake: B-plus - Like I said, the defense played great. They were coached well Saturday, made huge plays and held their own most of the night. With that said, the defensive line doesn't look as dominant as we had hoped. Though, to be fair, I doubt they'll face an offense this season (outside the Pac-12 title game, which is no guarantee) that rivals SC's. So...
- Kyle Whittingham: B - Last year, Whittingham was 0-3 in the biggest games of the season. This season, he's 0-1 but the effort is so far better and more inspired than anything we saw last season. I talked about a moral loss against Montana State, well, by the same token, this felt like a moral win. Sure, it doesn't count as a win and I'm not going to pretend we won - but I felt so much better about this program, our standing in the Pac-12 and the heart of our team than I did after week one's ho-hum victory over Montana State. Now please bring that same type of intensity down to Provo for the Holy War.