SALT LAKE CITY -- If USC wants to move up in the national rankings, it might need to offer a complete performance.
That was not the case Thursday night as the 13th-ranked Trojans escaped with a 38-28 victory over Utah before 46,037, the fourth-largest crowd in the history of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The play of the night was an 83-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Barkley to wide receiver Marqise Lee that broke open a tight game and gave USC a 31-21 advantage with 12:10 left in the game.
"I think this showed the character of the team and the fight," Barkley said. "(This was my best performance) of the year, I think."
It also deflated the boisterous crowd, which saw a plucky performance from a Utah team coming off a 37-7 loss to Arizona State. That was followed by cornerback Nickell Robey's first interception of the season and he went 38 yards for a touchdown to give USC a 38-21 lead with 9:30 remaining.
Before those plays, the Utes were down by only three points and in contention for the upset.
"We were two plays from winning that game," Utah tailback John White said. "That intercepted screen pass and 83-yard touchdown. We had a formula heading into the game and fought until the end, but it wasn't enough."
Those two touchdowns took away the sting of an awful start by the Trojans (4-1, 2-1). Utah (2-3, 0-2) jumped out to a 14-0 lead following two bad snaps by USC center Khaled Holmes in the first three minutes.
"It was kind of a low point and not how we wanted to start," Barkley said. "Our guys bounced back."
It would be unfair to say Utah only capitalized on turnovers, however.
Barkley completed 23 of 30 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns. Lee caught 12 passes for 192 yards and one touchdown. Tailback Silas Redd gained 77 yards in 17 carries before leaving with an undisclosed injury.
Utah quarterback Jon Hays was 19 of 32 for 160 yards and two touchdowns before giving way to backup Travis Wilson. Tailback John White gained 68 yards in 13 carries.
USC turnovers deep in Trojans' territory on USC's first two possession helped Utah take an early 14-0 lead, but the Trojans worked their way back into the game and led 24-21 at halftime.
The Utes' offense put its first long drive together in the second quarter with an 81-yard drive that ended with Hays' 18-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver DeVonte Christopher. That touchdown gave the surprising Utes a 21-10 lead with 8:54 left in the second quarter.
But the Trojans came back even quicker with a 74-yard, three-play drive as Barkley threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Randall Telfer, who made a nice one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone.
This was the first drive of the night where Barkley was allowed to throw downfield, and Robert Woods caught a 41-yard pass to help set up the touchdown.
Robey forced the fumble that set up USC's next score as Barkley found Woods in the back of the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown that gave the Trojans their first lead of the game (24-21).
Utah kicker Nick Marsh missed a 48-yard field goal with eight seconds left in the first half. The Utes also had a touchdown called back on a thrilling reverse play in which Hays lined up at wide receiver and took a pitch before throwing a 44-yard touchdown pass. But the play was nullified because of an ineligible receiver downfield.
Holmes experienced a disastrous start to the game. Holmes rolled a shotgun snap to Barkley, who picked it up but was stripped of the ball by defensive end Nate Fakahafua, who ran eight yards for a touchdown less than a minute into the game.
On the next possession, Holmes' snap never reached Barkley and Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei recovered at the Trojans' 13-yard line. Wide receiver Kenneth Scott caught an 11-yard touchdown from Hays to give the Utes a 14-0 lead.
The shell-shocked Trojans finally regrouped and went 75 yards as Lee caught two 18-yard passes. Redd scored on a 3-yard run to cut the deficit to 14-7 with 7:12 left in the first quarter.
The Trojans' offense still did not look close to preseason expectations, and USC coach Lane Kiffin mostly kept the ball on ground and did not allow Barkley to throw deep. The Trojans added a 32-yard field goal by Andre Heidari to cut Utah's lead to 14-10 with 12:53 left in the half.
NOTES: USC tailback Curtis McNeal left the game with a concussion. ... The Trojans were also without tailback Javorius Allen, who did not attend the game because of a death in the family.