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Utah looks the part of a late starter in season-opening loss to No. 20 USC

Utes’ sloppy offense, scrappy defense falls short against the Trojans in 33-17 loss

Utah Utes quarterback Jake Bentley (8) and his teammates leave the field after their loss to the USC Trojans at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Utah Utes quarterback Jake Bentley (8) and his teammates leave the field after their loss to the USC Trojans at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s game against No. 20 USC Saturday night kind of looked like what you might expect from a team playing its season opener, in late November, against a nationally ranked opponent that had already played, and won, two games.

Not only that, but the Utes were breaking in a new quarterback — who happened to get injured early in the second quarter — as well as rolling out a bunch of new defensive starters against an offense with a skilled, experienced quarterback and loaded with dynamic playmakers.

On top of that, the Utes had been dealing with COVID-19 issues in recent weeks, forcing the cancellation of their first two games. Utah was the last FBS team to start its season during the 2020 pandemic.

Add it all up and, well, the Pac-12 South favorite Trojans patched together a 33-17 victory over the sloppy Utes, who coughed up five turnovers, in front of an empty Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“Overall, a tough way to start the season,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “A disappointing game but there were a lot of positives in it, though.”

It was somewhat surprising that USC didn’t win by a more lopsided margin. As much as Utah struggled at times, the Trojans struggled to put the Utes away.

Ultimately, though, Utah couldn’t make the plays on offense they needed.

Trailing 30-17 early in the fourth quarter, the Utes drove all the way to the USC 10-yard line but couldn’t convert on fourth-and-4, turning the ball over to the Trojans on downs.

That pretty much sealed Utah’s fate.

USC improved to 3-0 on the year while the Utes fell to 0-1. The loss snaps Utah’s streak of 13 consecutive wins in season openers.

“It was a big win for us and our season,” said USC coach Clay Helton. “The storyline tonight was our defense. I thought they played amazing the entire game, really giving up only 10 points.”

In the end, this much was clear — Utah has plenty to clean up, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

The Ute defense, meanwhile, showed flashes of its usual aggressiveness, creating some familiar, opportunistic moments.

“I thought our run defense was solid. We gave up some things in the pass game,” Whittingham said. “We had some good performances by a lot of guys that hadn’t played much football for us, if any.”

Whittingham mentioned several true freshmen by name, including cornerback Clark Phillips III and safety Nate Ritchie.

Another bright spot was linebacker Nephi Sewell, who scored Utah’s first touchdown of the season on a scoop-and-score. Later, he recorded an interception.

“Nephi balled out,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “That’s no surprise. He’s been balling out in practice.

As for the defense overall, Lloyd liked what he saw, for the most part.

“I’m happy with the way the defense played today,” he said. “We were in sync most of the game. We made some mental mistakes near the goal line and we had some missed tackles. Little things.”

Whittingham said he was encouraged by the play of his defense, which he described as “scrappy.”

“The defense did a great job,” said Utah senior grad transfer quarterback Jake Bentley, who replaced an injured starter Cam Rising in the second quarter.

Offensively? The Utes experienced stretches of futility. Utah gained 119 yards on the ground, the fewest since 2018, when they had 51 yards against Washington. Of those 119 rushing yards, 33 were credited to a Bentley run.

The five turnovers were the most in a regular-season game since turning it over that many times against Washington State in 2017. Bentley threw an interception on a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game.

And Utah was just 3 of 11 on third down against USC. The Utes failed to convert a single third-down opportunity in the second half.

“It’s definitely something we can fix,” Bentley said. “We’ll be committed to fixing it.”

“I thought we’d be more productive offensively,” Whittingham said.

Whittingham didn’t announce his starting quarterback publicly during its prolonged training camp. As many expected, the sophomore Rising took the starting snaps Saturday.

But after turning the ball over twice, Rising suffered a shoulder injury and was replaced by Bentley.

Rising completed 3 of 6 passes for 45 yards and an interception in about one quarter of play while Bentley completed 16 of 28 passes for 171 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

But Utah’s poor quarterback play can be partly attributed to the poor pass protection from the Utes’ offensive line, which returned a lot of experience from last season. USC’s defensive line was able to get pressure on Rising and Bentley.

On the night, Utah gained 335 yards of total offense, compared to USC’s 357. Trojan sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis completed 24 of 35 passes for 264 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

It was a turnover-fest in the first half at Rice-Eccles.

USC scored its first touchdown after it sacked Rising, who fumbled. The ball was recovered by Connor Murphy and the Trojans scored on a 2-yard TD run by Vavae Malepeai to give USC a 10-3 edge early in the second quarter.

Later in the period, Maxs Tupai sacked Slovis, forcing a fumble. Sewell scooped up the ball and raced 23 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 10-apiece.

“I came through the ‘B’ gap,” Sewell said. “I saw the ball pop out and I decided to scoop it up.”

The Trojans eventually increased their lead to 24-10 with 5:45 left in the half.

Utah’s best drive of the first half was its last. Bentley engineered a nine-play, 75-yard drive that was highlighted by a serpentine 33-yard run by Bentley that appeared to cover about 70 yards.

That drive culminated in a 7-yard touchdown pass from Bentley to Samson Nacua. That cut the deficit to 24-17.

Utah had three first-half turnovers, with two of those happening inside its own 30-yard line. USC gave the ball away twice in the first half.

While the Utes were happy to finally kick off their season after an interminable wait, they know they have a lot of work to do before next week’s game, which may or may not be against Arizona State, which has been ravaged by the virus.

Whittingham said they could know by Sunday if they will play ASU this weekend, or another opponent.

It was the virus that caused the stadium to be empty Saturday, a phenomenon that Whittingham called “weird,” adding, “we certainly missed our home crowd.”

But it’s the start of a new week and Utah is confident it will be able to clean things up and make marked improvements going into its second game of the season.