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Utah has a tough night against USC’s receiving corps in 30-23 loss

Utes gave up pivotal plays in setback.

Southern California wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (6) makes a catch in front of Utah defensive back Julian Blackmon (23) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

LOS ANGELES — It didn’t take USC long to air it out in Friday’s 30-23 upset of 10th-ranked Utah.

Despite losing starting quarterback Kedon Slovis to injury just 36 seconds into the game, the Trojans rallied behind backup Matt Fink to take an early lead and it proved to be decisive.

USC completed 10 of its first 11 passes — racking up 155 yards and two touchdowns — to give the Trojans a 14-7 lead with 8:11 remaining in the first quarter.

By game’s end, the Utes’ penalties and a fumble on a play from the 2-yard line added to an inability to shut down USC’s top receiving trio of Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham quickly acknowledged the things that led to his team’s demise. The penalties proved extremely costly. The Utes were flagged 16 times for 120 yards.

“We’ve got to get better there,” Whittingham said before addressing the other pivotal deficiencies.

Late in the first half, Utah failed to cash in on a situation deep in the red zone. Devin Brumfield fumbled on a play from the 2-yard line. Nickel back Greg Johnson recovered it on the USC 6 with just 16 seconds left in the second quarter.

“We left some points on the field there,” he said. “And mostly we had no answer for their receiving corps.”

Pittman led the way with 10 catches for 232 yards and a touchdown. St. Brown was second with five receptions for 68 yards and a score. Vaughns rounded out the highly touted trio with four grabs for 49 yards and a TD.

Whittingham noted that the coaches have got to do a better job of allowing the secondary to be more quick and deal with receivers like that. He added that they have to rethink some things coaching-wise.

Overall, Whittingham said the “overwhelming difference in the game” were the penalties, the inability to score on that last drive in the first half and not having an answer for the deep ball.

USC scored its first touchdown on a 29-yard pass to Vaughns. The Trojans made it 14-7 with a 31-yard scoring strike to St. Brown. The biggest blow was a 77-yard throw to Pittman that made it 21-10 with 9:54 to go in the third quarter.

When it was over, USC had netted 368 yards in the air against a Utah defense that allowed just 523 combined (174.3 per game) in victories against BYU, Northern Illinois and Idaho State.

Not a good thing, obviously, with pass happy Washington State coming to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sept. 28.

At the Coliseum, though, Whittingham said the Utes may not see a receiving group as talented as USC’s all year.

“We just couldn’t locate the ball. Often times we were in position, couldn’t locate the ball — just couldn’t find it and they go up and snatch it,” Whittingham said. “We seemed a little disoriented at times back there.”

Safety Julian Blackmon, who had Utah’s only pass breakup, had an explanation for the early woes defending the pass.

“I think we just came out and we weren’t ready,” he said. “I feel like this is was we practiced for but we came out a little slow and they just kept on going.”

Blackmon wasn’t surprised that the Trojans didn’t seem to skip a bit when Slovis went down and was replaced by Fink.

“They have a great team. We have a great team. They make plays. We make plays,” he said. “It’s just they came out with a better game-plan this game.”

Linebacker Francis Bernard noted that the defense, collectively, didn’t adjust well when they needed to and unfortunately it hurt them.

“We’re stacked all across the board,” Fink said of his receivers. “With weapons like that you can’t do anything about it.”

Utah’s defense did hold USC to only 13 yards rushing. The Utes also had two takeaways against the Trojans — a fumble recovery by defensive end Mika Tafua and an interception by safety Terrell Burgess.

At 3-1 overall and 0-1in Pac-12 play, the Utes now gear up for Mike Leach and Washington State.

“I think if anything we come with the same game-plan,” Blackmon said. “But this time, you know, we kind of get to redeem ourselves. We let them get us this time.”

Blackmon vows the secondary will try to do better next week.

EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham said he didn’t know the health status of senior running back Zack Moss, who left the game with an injury after six carries for 20 yards, and added that he’ll get a more extended evaluation on Sunday . . . Former Utah coach Urban Meyer was at the game, working for Fox Sports . . . The announced attendance was 55,719.