If No. 10 Utah was supposed to be the Pac-12’s best chance to reach the College Football Playoff, that may have come to an end on Friday night against USC.
The Utes, in a 30-23 loss to the Trojans at The Coliseum, were plagued by turnovers, penalties and miserable secondary play against a team playing with its third-string quarterback.
USC second-stringer Kedon Slovis, making his third career start, was knocked out of the game on the second play from scrimmage. But that wouldn’t matter. Third-stringer Matt Fink came in and lit up the Utes for 351 yards through the air, including 232 yards on 10 connections with star receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
It was the first significant action of Fink’s career, but he still was able to torch the Utes for touchdown passes of 29, 31 and 77 yards. On the 77-yard bomb, Pittman Jr. blew past the Utah corner and then completely outclassed safety Julian Blackmon, who played only the ball and got caught looking silly in the process.
That score gave USC a 21-10 lead — a lead Clay Helton’s team would not relinquish.
Utah doomed by offensive errors late
Though an ugly interception from Fink allowed Utah to cut the lead to 21-17, the USC defense made the necessary plays to keep Utah out of the end zone. Though some would argue Utah shooting itself in the foot is as much to blame.
On its next possession, Utah quickly moved deep into USC territory but would stall inside the 10 for the second time on the night. The first was a fumble from the Trojans’ 2-yard line in the final seconds of the first half. In this instance, the Utes allowed a free rusher on third-and-goal from the 1, QB Tyler Huntley was stopped for a six-yard loss and the drive limped to a close with a chip-shot field goal.
USC’s ensuing possession quickly sputtered with a punt, but Ben Griffiths was able to pin Utah inside its own 10. A few plays later, Huntley made an inexplicable mistake for a senior. He dropped back into his own end zone, held the ball for too long and by the time he threw it away it was too late. He was flagged for intentional grounding in his own end zone, giving the Trojans a safety, a 23-20 lead and the ball back.
From there, the Trojans delivered the final blow. Fink found Pittman Jr. behind the defense yet again for a 42-yard gain on third down when it looked like Utah might get the ball back. Three plays later, Markese Stepp was in the end zone, ultimately sealing an upset victory for the Trojans.
Utah penalized 16 times
Utah’s issues were present from the jump. Fink, after his first throw fell to the turf, completed four straight passes on his initial drive, including the 29-yard touchdown to Vaughns, setting the tone for his success the rest of the night.
But it went beyond the poor secondary play for Utah. The Utes had a field goal blocked on their second drive and turned it over on downs at the USC 27 on their third drive. Utah went 76 yards in 13 plays to close out the first half and looked poised to take the lead going into halftime, only to fumble at the USC 2.
And we didn’t even get to the penalties. The Utes were flagged a whopping 16 times for 120 yards on the evening in an uncharacteristically sloppy performance from a Kyle Whittingham program that prides itself on discipline.
Sloppiness is more characteristic of USC in recent years, and that certainly was present in this one. The Trojans were flagged 11 times for 117 yards, but it wasn’t enough to doom them as Helton continues to prolong what seems to be an inevitable exit.
What does this mean for the Pac-12?
Entering Friday night, the Pac-12 had six ranked teams, but Utah was well ahead of the pack at No. 10. And the Utes were one of just four undefeated teams in the league. That’s down to three now — No. 19 Washington State, No. 23 California and No. 24 Arizona State, all of whom are 3-0 entering Saturday’s action.
Nobody expects those teams to have what it takes to get through the conference slate unscathed. Utah has the talent and those three teams on the schedule, all at home. Friday night’s USC game and a Nov. 2 trip to No. 22 Washington were the two road tests for the Utes. And with No. 16 Oregon and Washington already having losses — plus USC’s loss to BYU last weekend — Utah was the conference’s best hope to make a march to the College Football Playoff.
And let’s face it, the Pac-12 does not have the top-to-bottom depth to afford much wiggle room. The conference has been shut out from the four-team field in three of the five seasons of the CFP’s existence. Unless an unexpected team goes undefeated, that will likely be four times in six seasons.
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