For nearly four quarters on Friday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, it was a feel-good story: redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold was performing admirably in his first start and USC was in control against No. 24 Utah, on its way to a pivotal road win to correct a forgettable start to the season.
But it was 16 seconds too short. With time ticking down under a minute and USC up by 3 points, Utah quarterback Troy Williams dropped back at the 18-yard line and fired toward wide receiver Tim Patrick near the right pylon. And it was a slip by junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson — whose right shoe came off — allowing Patrick to make the game-winning catch.
“My shoe came off,” Jackson said. “Once I was breaking into the ball, my shoe just slipped off. When I tried to get up and play, I slipped again.”
And so it went. Instead of relishing in the rain coming down on a dreary, miserable night in Salt Lake City, the Trojans were left with a bitter 31-27 defeat, dropping them to 1-3 on the season.
USC entered the fourth quarter ahead 27-17, but Utes put together a touchdown drive early in the fourth to trim the deficit down to 3 points. With the help of a fourth down conversion in the red zone, Williams found Raelon Singleton for a leaping catch in the end zone.
On the ensuing drive, the Trojans made it into Utah territory, but opted to punt on fourth-and-three from the 37-yard line, pinning the Utes at their 7-yard line.
“When you don’t make [the first down], they’re literally two throws away from being in field goal range with a good field goal kicker,” head coach Clay Helton said. “I really trust our punter [redshirt sophomore Chris Tilbey]. He’s been unbelievable in these games, placing these balls and he did it again.”
But Utah marched 93 yards on 15 plays, eating up more than five minutes to clock to win the game, converting twice on fourth down in USC territory. A play after running back Zack Moss gained five yards on fourth down to USC’s 18-yard line, Williams delivered the strike to Patrick for the win.
Helton, who also opted to punt last week against Stanford in Cardinal territory despite trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter, stuck to his philosophy again.
“To get a team down at the 5-yard line, you’ve got to trust your defense and I trust them,” he said. “I trust [defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast] and I trust this defense. I wouldn’t second-guess myself and I’d do it again.”
But it cost USC on Friday, as Utah took advantage of the possession.
“Their offense made plays,” sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith said. “Their receivers are big and tall and fast, and they were open a lot. It is what it is. I have nothing much to say. It’s a bummer.”
At least one player wanted to go for it on fourth down — junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had a much-improved performance with eight catches for 98 yards.
“We all did,” he said on wanting to run a fourth-down play. “As offensive players, we have the momentum, we’re driving down. Whatever our coach’s decision is his call, I’m all for it too.”
The Trojans extended their lead out of halftime, as Darnold led them on an eight-play, 91-yard drive that culminated in a quarterback keeper for a touchdown. The drive involved a couple of well-thrown passes for big gains — one to redshirt senior tight end Taylor McNamara over the middle and the other to Smith-Schuster that drew a pass interference penalty deep in Utah territory.
But Utah responded with its own lengthy touchdown drive, which involved a trick play for a 28-yard gain into USC territory. On second and goal at the 1-yard line, Utah’s Armand Shyne fumbled in the end zone, but Isaac Asiata recovered it in the ensuing scrum for a touchdown to cut the lead back to seven.
An eventful first half featuring fumbles, kick returns and plenty of replay reviews ended with the Trojans up 17-10.
USC took its first lead late in the second quarter. The Trojans caught a break after Darnold appeared to fumble the ball in his own red zone, but it was ruled a forward pass and incompletion. On the next play, the Trojans took advantage as senior running back Justin Davis had a 50-yard run, and he completed the drive with a 14-yard touchdown to eclipse the 100-yard mark before halftime. The score put the Trojans ahead 14-10.
A defensive stop followed by a 36-yard field goal gave USC a touchdown lead into the locker room. Darnold threw for 130 yards on 10-of-17 passing in the half as the Trojans had more than double the time of possession as the Utes. He finished completing 18-of-26 passes for 253 yards and 44 yards rushing.
“You walk into a hostile environment like this on a rainy night and go out there and do what he did … I thought for a guy making his first start this is as good as you can hope for,” Helton said.
Offensive coordinator Tee Martin praised Darnold for his leadership.
“For me, listening upstairs from what he was saying on the sideline, he has this macho leadership about him, a sense of confidence,” Martin said. “I think the guys feed off that. I thought he did a good job of managing the offense and making plays too. There were some decisions out there that he made that was next-level type stuff.”
The Trojans’ defense was roughed up right away by the Utes’ rushing attack. Utah ran on 16 of its first 18 plays, including all 12 plays on the first drive. Williams finished it off with a 10-yard scamper to the left side for a touchdown to give Utah a 7-0 lead.
Jackson, though, answered quickly for USC, taking the ensuing kickoff 100 yards, blazing effortlessly past defenders to even the score. It was Jackson’s third career kickoff return and second of 100 yards, tying him with Anthony Davis for most in USC history.
USC struggled to take care of the ball, fumbling on its first three drives. In the first quarter, Davis fumbled near midfield and Darnold coughed up the ball on a quarterback run in the red zone to negate a promising drive. On the first drive of the second quarter, Jones was stood up on a third down play in Utah territory and also lost the football.
“We practiced all week with wet balls in practice,” Helton said. “You’ve got to have two arms on the ball.”
Be it turnovers, fourth down plays, coaching decisions or an ill-timed slip, USC had victory snatched from its grasp in a painful manner.
“I thought it was tonight,” Helton said on when he thought a turnaround would happen. “I’ll be honest with you. I really thought the attitude and competitiveness this team was playing with — I’m heartbroken for them.”
Davis expressed his disappointment, but looked ahead to USC’s next two games — at home against Arizona State and Colorado.
“This is one of the more tougher losses,” he said. “It really shows what kind of team you are to bounce back from this. I can’t remember the last time we started off the season this bad. It’s really up to the team to determine, find a way to get these next two wins at home.”