The Utah Utes are learning this whole process thing, as Utah coach Kyle Whittingham calls the transition into the Pac-12, is not only going to take a while but also comes with some hard knocks.
A game after getting blown out at Arizona State, the Utes were beaten by No. 13 USC 38-28 Thursday in front of 46,037 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
While the game wasn't as much of a blowout as some might have predicted, the Utes (2-3, 0-2) aren't interested in saving face with close losses. They want wins.
"It's a step in the right direction, but it never feels good losing," quarterback Jon Hays said.
Thursday's game was there for the taking, too.
After a standout defensive performance in the first quarter that led to two Utah touchdowns and several miscues by the Trojans, including two missed field goals, the Utes trailed the Trojans (4-1, 2-1) just 24-21 going into the fourth quarter.
But the Utes' first drive of the final quarter went three and out and USC responded with an 83-yard touchdown pass from Matt Barkley to Marqise Lee to put the Trojans ahead 31-21 with 12:10 to go.
If that didn't seal it, an interception thrown by Hays that was returned 38 yards for a touchdown with 9:38 remaining did.
"Those two plays were the back-breakers," Whittingham said.
The end result was a mixed bag for the Utes. Unlike their last game, when ASU came out and put the Utes on their heels in the opening minutes, Utah couldn't excuse away its performance Thursday.
Instead of blown assignments, injuries or simply not being ready, all the Utes could say was they gave it their best shot and they got beat.
Granted, losing to USC a team some believe can still work its way back into the national title picture is far from embarrassing.
But now the Utes are in a bind, with road games coming against No. 25 UCLA and No. 14 Oregon State.
"We made incremental progress in the offense and took a step forward," Whittingham said. "But the bottom line is we are 0-2 in the conference with our backs to the wall just like last year. … We have to continue to fight. That is all we can do."
While the offense might have made some progress, the extent to which it must improve was obvious against USC.
Hays was 19 for 32 for 160 yards with the late interception. The run game never got going either, with White rushing 13 times for 68 yards.
Whittingham noted that backup quarterback Travis Wilson did a nice job moving the Utes down the field late in the game, connecting with Dres Anderson on a 31-yard pass that set up Kelvin York's 5-yard touchdown run.
"Perhaps we should have given him more opportunities," Whittingham said, adding, "but Hays is still our quarterback."
There is no discussion or second-guessing who should be running USC's offense with the way Barkley managed the game.
Barkley finished 23 for 30 for 303 yards and three touchdowns and Lee had 12 catches for 192 yards.
Utah defensive lineman Star Lotulelei, whose play helped set up Utah's first two touchdowns, admitted the defense backed off after the Utes went up 14-0.
"We felt like we had it under control and settled," he said. "We did a bad job in that. We should have kept fighting. SC came back and took care of business."
R IN SHORT • Utah's run game continues to struggle and USC's air attack is just too much for the Utes as USC wins the South matchup going away.
Key moment • Matt Barkley throws an 83-yard touchdown pass to Marqise Lee to put USC ahead 31-21 early in the fourth quarter.