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Lessons from USC vs. Utah: Disappointed but Not Surprised

The expectations surrounding Utah were at their highest in years. That all came crashing down with another loss to USC in Los Angeles. Now the question is whether Utah can recover or if this will be the defining moment of a disappointing season.

NCAA Football: Utah at Southern California Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Well, Utah lost to USC in Los Angeles again. The formerly No. 10 Utes lost to the Trojans 30-23 in a game they never led. What did we spend all Friday night learning about?

It’s honestly taken quite some time to think rationally about this game because every time I try to think about all the mistakes that happened my mind just fills with angry rants and colorful language. The game against USC was frustrating on many levels, but none more so than being forced to once again confront the reality that Utah couldn’t beat USC when it mattered most.

There’s a mentality among college fans that I tend to mock fairly often, that of delusion. There are the fans of any SEC West team that thinks it’s their year to beat Alabama. It’s the fans of teams outside of a power conference or Notre Dame that think they have a legitimate chance to make the playoff. And the fans of teams that were really good in the 80’s and now expect their team to still maintain that level are always a delight. Delusion runs rampant among college fanbases.

There’s a reason delusion is so common though, it’s because it’s far less painful than the alternative: facing reality. Coming to terms with reality is always more painful than carrying on in a land of made up fantasies. Delusional fanbases take L’s all the time but they simply bounce back to convince themselves the next year is the year. The thing that is far more crushing than losing a game you were always going to lose is having legitimate hope crushed right before your eyes and coming to grips with a reality where you’re not as good as you thought you were. That is what watching Utah face USC was like this past Friday.

Utah had legitimate aspirations this year. The team was 3-0, had looked good in each game and had moved up all the way to No. 10 in the AP Poll. With Washington, Oregon and USC all taking early losses, the Pac-12 looked to be in search of a new king, and the Utes were primed to take over for at least this year. The fanbase knew that games against Washington and Washington State would be crucial later in the year, but the game that was really circled on the calendar, the one that would give Utah the chance to finally prove it’s worthiness, was always going to be the game in Los Angeles against USC.

The hype surrounding the football team hadn’t been matched since 2015 when Utah rocketed up to No. 3 in the nation after the first six games of the season. That was the last season that Utah was ranked in the Top 10 of the AP Poll before this past week. After beating strong Michigan, Oregon and Cal teams, the Utes looked prime to make a statement in the Pac-12 if they could just beat a 3-3 USC team on the road.

USC rocked Utah to the score of 42-24. That was the most jarring loss I can remember experiencing until experiencing an almost identical loss on Friday night. The difference is that expectations were higher now for Utah than they had ever been, and Utah was actually favored in this game, unlike in 2015 where they were 3-point underdogs.

It appeared Utah had the game wrapped up on the second play of the game when Leki Fotu fell on top of backup Kedon Slovis and knocked him out for the rest of the game. In came the Trojans third-string quarterback, Matt Fink, who should hardly have been ready for one of the best defenses in the nation. It turns out he was more ready than the defense was and proceeded to torch Utah for 350 yards. That was not the only tragic part of the game for Utah, there were many blunders and problems that eroded at our sanity. Other examples include:

· USC’s best offense was to launch the ball into double coverage and watch as the secondary suddenly became blind locating the football. All of Fink’s touchdown passes were balls that really never should have been caught in the first place.

· It felt like the most common sight that night was a member of the secondary scrambling to catch up to a receiver who wasn’t open when the ball was thrown his way.

· The secondary was one concern coming out of nonconference play, the other was the struggles on the offensive line. Those problems were also exposed as Huntley was under pressure constantly and was forced to scramble for his life on nearly every drop back in the second half. The USC defense finished with two sacks and six tackles for loss.

· Zack Moss was injured after only six carries and will now miss significant playing time. The best player on the offense is out for likely six weeks. The thing is, the Utah run game still looked above average with the stable of backup running backs. The team still averaged 5.0 yards per carry and finished with 247 total yards on the ground. That didn’t matter though.

· The USC rushing attack was an absolute disaster all night when going against the Utah defense. That is, until the game was actually on the line. USC had 13 total rushing yards the entire game. When the Trojans got the ball back with four minutes left, the Utes just needed to prevent one first down when USC had been averaging 0.6 yards per carry. Naturally, USC immediately had runs of nine yards and ten yards, thus securing two first downs and the game. When Utah knew exactly what USC was going to do, they couldn’t stop it. Game over.

· The officiating isn’t even worth delving into because there were plenty of bogus calls on both side of the ball. Pac-12 refs are going to Pac-12 ref. But the Utes still had three false starts and a substitution infraction that can’t be blamed on the officiating. And despite the obscene number of holding calls, some of them were actual holds by Utah players. Both teams played undisciplined, but if Utah had kept it together, that would have been a significant edge in the game. But they couldn’t do it in the biggest game of their season to this point.

· There were plenty of other issues that arose. The offensive line getting shredded when backed up to the goal line and causing Huntley to get an intentional grounding penalty and a safety. The continued calling of press man defense leading to the cornerbacks getting destroyed by USC’s incredibly talented receiving core in one-on-one situations. There was another missed field goal. The botched handoff at the goal line that would have given Utah a 17-14 lead at the half if it had led to a touchdown. The repeated calling of zone reads in the red zone. More drops from the receivers.

Everything fell apart for Utah in the worst ways possible, slowly destroying hope until there was no time remaining, and the pain of reality hung over the fanbase like a dark cloud. There was nothing but pain, and it was hard to find much of a positive from this game. Even after several days, it’s still hard to find the good. But there was one bright spot that breaks through the darkness of the other memories: the play of Tyler Huntley.

I would give my life for Tyler Huntley because I know he would give his life to pick up one extra yard. Huntley was forced to run the ball 18 times in the game, and only a couple of those were runs designed for him. Most of the time it was because the pocket completely collapsed in a split second and he was forced to scramble for his life to try and make a play. Most of the time, there was nothing there and Huntley took massive hit after massive hit in this game. His formerly white jersey was completely green by the end of the third quarter. At times, it felt like he was the only one on the offense that was interested in actually scoring.

After a loss, fingers tend to get pointed at the quarterback in some shape or form. Huntley went 22-30 for 210 yards. He threw for one touchdown and added another 60 yards on the ground. He played an excellent game. If one wants to cast blame in Huntley’s direction, the only criticism he deserves is for the botched handoff in the red zone that fumbled away a chance for Utah to take the lead before halftime. Other than that, he made nearly all the right decisions.

Huntley is not responsible for the horrendous red zone play calling. That’s on Andy Ludwig. I wonder if there will ever come a day as a Utah fan that we feel confident that Utah will actually score while in the red zone. One can dream.

Huntley also shouldn’t be criticized for scrambling a ton, he basically had to start running when the ball was snapped. As frustrating as it was to watch Huntley have to scramble for three yards when he needed nine for the first down, there was never anyone open for him anyway. Plus, he was going all out for those yards and giving me immense anxiety every time he took a hit or dove headfirst for a few extra yards.

The loss of Zack Moss is a crushing blow to the offense. In any other year, it might feel like the defense was going to have to carry the team the rest of the way. I don’t feel that way this year because I believe in Tyler Huntley and what he can do as the senior leader of this offense going forward. The offense will have struggles this season, that’s just part of being a Utah fan, but it feels like we’ll be far more at the mercy of the offensive line and the receivers than the quarterback this time.

It’s still hard to write about this game and not get incredibly worked up thinking about all the things that went wrong for Utah. But the saddest part of it all is it feels like this could be the defining game of a Utah season that held so much promise. There were so many things working in Utah’s favor this year. The early struggles of USC were big, the rest of the Pac-12 South looked weak, and the teams Utah had to play from the North all had shown cracks during in the season.

The USC game was supposed to be a defining moment in the opposite way. It was supposed to establish Utah’s dominance within the South and prove the Utes to be legit in the Pac-12. It was supposed to be a chance to break the Coliseum curse and actually get a win in Los Angeles for the first time since joining the Pac-12. It was time for Utah to carry the Pac-12 on its back and lead the conference to glory.

None of that happened. Instead it was yet another in a long series of disappointing Pac-12 losses that held Utah back from greatness. The thing is, I still think that Kyle Whittingham is a great coach. Utah would be hard pressed to find a coach that would have this type of understanding of the culture, commit this long to Utah and have the skills necessary to build the type of program Whittingham has.

But the struggles against the best teams in the Pac-12 remain frustrating, and it feels like we now have to wait another year to see if Utah will be able to clear that next hurdle. It doesn’t help that the rest of the Pac-12 imploded on Saturday and straight up demolished most of the hope the conference had left for glory. Washington State lost to UCLA in as embarrassing of a defensive game as possible. The only other undefeated team in the South, Arizona State, blew their game against Colorado at home. Suddenly the Pac-12 has one undefeated team left. That team is Cal, as we all predicted.

If we take a step back and think rationally about what this loss means long term, it’s possible to say that Utah can still win the Pac-12 South, play in the conference championship, and make a run at the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff. Utah would have to win out, get some help from USC and the other power conferences to even have a chance at the playoff. Even to win the South now, USC has to lose at least two Pac-12 games, and Utah would have to be perfect going forward. The odds are suddenly stacked against the Utes in a season where everything seemed to be breaking in their favor.

There is hope there, but that hope feels far emptier than it did before. While I still believe in the long-term direction of the program, in the short term my confidence has been shaken. While it remains to be seen if that feeling is a one-week overreaction, one thing remains clear: this season isn’t going to turn out how we expected. It’s just hard to imagine great things for the Utes the same way we did only days earlier.

Having your dreams crushed is as much a part of college football as any of the happy parts of fandom are. Hopefully no one is doing the fair-weather fan thing and checking out until next season. There is still much for Utah to play for. But this seems to be the trend for the Utes.

It’s like the family member that is constantly letting you down. You love them to death. You wish the best for them. You see the progress they’re making. But when they finally have that chance to turn their life around or do something great, they sabotage themselves and come up short. You know there is greatness in them, but you are left to wonder if they will ever actually achieve it. So, you continue on hoping they’ll figure things out while becoming more and more numb to each successive disaster.

The last five years of Utah have been as bumpy a ride as ever. There have been greater highs than the program has seen since joining the Pac-12. There have also been similar lows. As the peaks rise, the valleys tend to get deeper. The hope remains that a season will come where Utah won’t nosedive into one of those valleys.

Until that happens, we should probably come to expect it at least once a season. Every season as expectations continue to rise, it feels like disaster is always looming around the corner. The disaster almost always comes at the hands of USC or Washington. This year was no different I suppose. But in a year that was supposed to be different, that only makes this more devastating. I guess the worse thing I can say about this loss for Utah is that I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised. I hope one day that will change.