Heading into Thursday night's 10th annual Rodney Dangerfield Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, the University of Utah was looking for nothing if not respect against Southern Cal, but that wasn't what they were getting. Not in the early going, no, sir.

"Go back to the WAC," the Trojans told them, and, frankly, it didn't seem like such a bad idea at the time. The Utes were down by four touchdowns - oh, boy, here we go again - and the Trojans were on cruise control.Talk about deja vu. "This happened to us last year. We just gotta come back again," the Utes urged each other on the sideline. Who could forget. Almost a year ago to the day, the Utes spotted Washington State - another haughty Pac-10 team - 21 points in the Copper Bowl before rallying to within a missed field goal of winning.

The Utes were hoping for more this time. Just minutes before Thursday's kickoff, Rick Rasnick, Utah's offensive coordinator, stood on the sideline surveying the scene in Anaheim Stadium. "I just hope our defense starts well," he said. "If it's 21 or 28 to nothing, then it starts affecting your game plan."

So what happens? The second quarter was barely under way when the Trojans took a 28-0 lead. But the Utah coaches tinkered with their lineup, made a few tactical adjustments, and the rally began. The Utes shut out the Trojan offense the rest of the night and scored 21 unanswered points in the second half, cutting the score to 28-21 with 3:40 left in the game - still plenty of time to win.But the Trojans, who had been held to 85 yards in the second half to this point, ground out the clock with an 11-play, 55-yard drive. By the time the Utes got the ball back, they had only eight seconds left and 80 yards to go. All the Utes could do was throw a desperate long pass into the night sky, and hope for a miracle. It was intercepted.

But if the Utes didn't get a victory, they got a small consolation. "In the second half, we grew to respect Utah," said USC coach John Robinson.

"We gained respect for Utah and the WAC," said All-American wide receiver Johnnie Morton. ". . . We're lucky we came out on top."

For the Utes, respect was the theme of the 10th Freedom Bowl. They were insulted when USC athletic director Mike Garrett announced a month ago that he would try to get the Trojans out of its Freedom Bowl commitment because they had nothing to gain by playing the Utes, the fourth-place team in the Western Athletic Conference.

In the Utah locker room before the game, Herb Lusk, older brother of two Ute players and son of a reverend, knelt in prayer with the Utes and, well, got right to the point with the Almighty: "We want to win!" he said. "We want respect!"

But there was little of that when the Trojans scored four quick touchdowns, two of them set up by Ute mistakes (an interception and a shanked, 16-yard punt). Ken Grace returned a Utah punt 31 yards to midfield, and five plays later Morton gathered in a pass from Rob Johnson in front of Harold Lusk and Marcus Woods, slipped a tackle and stepped into the end zone to complete a 31-yard scoring play on USC's first series.

On the next play from scrimmage, Utah quarterback Mike McCoy threw into a crowd and USC's John Herpin emerged with an interception at the Utah 36, setting up a 9-yard TD pass from Johnson to Morton.

On USC's next possession, faced with third-and-20, Johnson threw a 46-yard strike to Grace at the 7, setting up a 1-yard TD run by David Dotson. A missed PAT kick left the score 20-0.

The rout continued. Early in the second quarter, Johnson threw a 5-yard scoring pass to tight end Johnny McWilliams, and a 2-yard conversion pass to tight end Brad Banta, making it 28-0 with still 13:34 left in the first half.

"Our guys were too big-eyed in the first quarter," said secondary coach Jugie Hogue.

Whittingham agreed. "Our kids were nervous," he said. "They didn't have much confidence. When they realized they could play with these guys, things started happening."

While the players gathered their wits, Ute coaches made adjustments on several fronts:

- Stopping Morton. The Utes had planned to stop Morton by jamming him at the line of scrimmage to disrupt his routs and timing. But nickelback Cedric Crawford was playing Morton too cautiously, so Whittingham moved the outside linebacker over to give Crawford help inside. It was a small adjustment, but it made all the difference. Crawford took three pass routs away from Morton in the second quarter by bumping him at the line. Morton, who caught 7 passes for 121 yards and 2 TDs in the first half, caught only 3 passes for 26 yards the rest of the night.

- Pressuring Johnson. To help out their thin and vulnerable secondary, Ute coaches felt they had to pressure Johnson. That didn't happen in the first quarter, so Whittingham crossed his inside backers on blitzes up the middle, and it contributed to five sacks - three by Adam Swaney, a former Trojan who was playing against former roommate/center Craig Gibson, and two by Luther Ellis.

- Stopping the Trojan blitz. The Trojans blitzed repeatedly in the first half, often with the entire front seven and with defensive end Willie McGinest freelancing as a linebacker. They kept McCoy ducking and running for his health, and it proved costly in the second quarter.

On fourth down at the USC goal line, McCoy was forced to throw off balance with linebacker Don Cunnigan hanging onto one of his legs, and he overthrew a wide open Kurt Haws in the end zone.

"They blitzed more than we thought they would," said Davis. "They were giving us all kinds of looks, and we got confused . . . So we went back to our base blocking assignments."

The adjustment worked. After passing for just 81 yards and 2 interceptions in the first half, McCoy threw for 205 yards and 1 touchdown in the second half.

The game turned on a single play early in the third quarter. Faced with a third-and-23 in Utah territory, McCoy scrambled right and threw back to Lusk in the middle of the field. Three defenders converged on him, but as they closed in he cut toward the sideline, turned the corner behind blocks from Greg Hooks and Curtis Marsh and raced 59 yards for a touchdown.

"That was the play that got us started," said McBride.

The Ute defense forced USC to punt after three plays, and McCoy went to work again. Jamal Anderson turned a short pass into a 20-yard gain, and on the next play he ran off tackle, bowled over safety Micah Phillips and rumbled 34 yards for a touchdown. A missed PAT kick by Chris Yergensen made the score 28-13.

The Utah defense stopped USC again. Faced with fourth-and-six at the 28-yard line, the Trojans elected to go for the first down rather than attempt a field goal, but cornerback Mark Swanson broke up a pass to McWilliams, giving the Ute offense the ball.

Enter Lusk again. He caught a pass for 29 yards off a short corner rout, plus an extra 15 yards for a late-hit penalty. On fourth-and-1 at the 15, with 4:34 left, Lusk caught a pass at the goal line, Keith Williams scored on the next play to cut USC's lead to 28-19.

Needing a two-point conversion, the Utes went to their book of tricks. Two weeks ago they inserted a two-point play for just such a situation. They split five receivers wide left in a modified Duck formation, and then McCoy threw to Anderson in the right flat for the conversion, cutting USC's lead to 28-21 with 3:40 remaining.

But USC ended all hope for another Utah score by eating up the clock, and for the second straight year the Utes fell just short of a bowl victory.

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"I was impressed with Utah's comeback," said Robinson. "It showed impressive coaching."

"The second half was definitely Utah's game," said McBride.

Later in the locker room, McBride told his players, "I think our program made a statement tonight. You earned respect down here."

Maybe one of these years they'll earn a win, too.

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