Bleeding Red: Plenty of blame to share in collapse vs. USC

It was the best of times, the worst of times
But the good could not overcome the bad
At first the O and D both played just fine
But watching the second half was just sad

COMMENTARY – In a week of carnage among ranked teams, including the top teams in the Pac-12, Utah had a chance to join the ranks of the spoilers. Instead, another winnable game slipped through the Utes’ fingers.

utesNone of the talking heads expected Utah to beat USC. The Utes’ sole win over the Trojans in the Golden State was more than a century ago in Fiesta Park in 1916. Utah had never beaten USC in the Coliseum, and that streak remains firmly intact (now 0-6 all-time). The fact that they came so close to pulling off the seemingly impossible makes it hurt just that much more.

Perhaps the lack of pressure on the Utes allowed them to play loose in the first half, while the Trojans began to crumble under the pressure. USC fumbled on two of their first three possessions and Utah returned one of the fumbles for the game’s first score. At the half, the Trojans had three turnovers and the Utes had three touchdowns for a 21-7 lead.

Apparently, the teams traded uniforms at halftime. As good as Utah was in the first half, it was that bad in the second, while USC found its groove. There is more than enough blame to go around.

The defense just could not get off the field, and was always a play away from stopping the Trojans, but could never actually manage to do so. USC had three monster scoring drives that each resulted in a touchdown — going 98 yards, then 88 yards, and 93 yards.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, file photo from NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/George Frey)

With the exception of the last drive of the game with less than five minutes to play, the offense was horrific. The Utes punted on four straight drives after only running 20 plays for a total of 70 yards.

When a team struggles that much on both sides of the ball in the second half after playing a much better game in the first half, the coaches have to share in the blame. USC came out of the locker room ready to play the second half. Utah didn’t.

In spite of struggling for the entire second half, the Utes did put together a 75-yard scoring drive to draw within a single point of the Trojans with less than a minute to play. It’s hard to fault Kyle Whittinghm for going for two and the win. There was no reason to believe that Utah could either stop USC in overtime or even score itself. The real heartbreak is that it almost worked. Troy Williams did a commendable job of extending the play and Darren Carrington II came free in the end zone – but by then Williams had committed to running it himself and didn’t even see the wide-open receiver at the back of the end zone.

“No regrets,” Whittingham said of the decision. “Our best chance to win given that our defense had played 80 snaps, we had trouble stopping Darnell, who was making play after play after play, and their receivers. I just thought that was our best opportunity to win the game.”

The Utes had missed a 33-yard field goal in the first half that came back to haunt them at the end of the game. But then again, if the defense had made just one more drive killing play in the second half, or if the offense had been able to move the ball on two drives instead of just one in the second half, then the missed field goal would not have mattered. Again, more than enough blame to go around.

The last two games have proved that the old adage really is true — absence makes the heart grow fonder. Nothing personal against Troy Williams, but he seems to be less effective than Tyler Huntley in running the offense. Even Whittingham admitted as much in the week leading up to the USC game when he confirmed there would be an open quarterback competition in practice with the starting job up for grabs between Williams and Cooper Bateman if Huntley was still unavailable due to injury.

Utah quarterback Troy Williams, top, celebrates with offensive lineman Jackson Barton after a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California in Los Angeles, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

Fans will always wonder what might have been with a different quarterback under center the last two weeks, and long for the days when Huntley was piloting the offense. The reality is that Williams does not share the blame for those losses alone, especially the loss last Saturday (I can’t emphasize enough that there was more than enough blame to go around). Nevertheless, fair or not, the quarterback is still a target for an undue amount of responsibility for the outcome of a game, win or lose.

But there’s no use crying over spilled milk. Or, as former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was so fond of saying, “You can’t play backwards.” Even iconic Walt Disney understood this concept. “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long,” he once explained. “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things.”

“We’ve got to put it behind us and regroup, get ready for the next one, and learn from our mistakes,”Whittingham said. “It’s time to move on and focus on Arizona State.”

Can Utah still have a Disney ending to its season? It depends on your definition of a Disney ending. Don’t expect the Utes to have any realistic shot of making the four-team NCAA playoff. In fact, the way the Pac-12 is cannibalizing itself, it looks like the entire Pac-12 is going to get shutout of the playoff again. How ironic that Utah’s dreams of a true storybook season were shattered in the shadow of Disneyland. Even so, the Utes still have a legitimate chance to go 8-4 and win yet another bowl game, which would still qualify as a happy ending (just ask the School Down South).

So, looking forward instead of back, the next door to open is Arizona State on The Hill this Saturday. Before last weekend, Utah’s chances against the Sun Devils looked pretty good. But then Arizona State stunned Washington in Tempe. The good news is that the Utes will be back in the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium and Arizona State will be on the road trying to avoid a hangover after such an emotional home win. Utah also gets its first day game of the season with a 1:30 p.m. kickoff.

Here’s hoping the Utes have a short memory and get back on track at home this week (and if it’s not too much to ask, may Tyler Huntley be well enough to play).

Bleeding Red is sports column written by Dwayne Vance. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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