This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Just seven games into the season, the No. 19 Utes satisfied widely held preseason hopes that they would, at last, get back to a bowl game.
And to boot, they find themselves in the thick of the Pac-12 South race.
No. 19 Utah beat No. 20 USC in Salt Lake City for the first time in 99 years, winning 24-21 before the largest crowd in Utah football history 47,619.
Junior quarterback Travis Wilson got the start and led the hosts on a game-winning, 73-yard drive, scrambling 18 yards to USC's one to set up a 1-yard pass to a diving Kaelin Clay with just eight second remaining.
"Words can't really describe how I'm feeling right now," Wilson said. "But I know bowl-eligible isn't enough for this team. I know this team wants to go a long ways."
Wilson carried atop fans' shoulders, as he was after beating No. 5 Stanford last year finished 17-of-31 for 193 yards, and junior running back Devontae Booker rushed 26 times for 102 yards and one touchdown. The win improved the 6-1 Utes to 3-1 in conference and dealt a blow to the previously 4-1 Trojans.
Head Coach Kyle Whittingham said after the game that although he doesn't believe a loss would've sunk their Pac-12 hopes, it's about time they became bowl-eligible.
"That was something that we were a little bit sick and tired of, and our players were absolutely committed to making that happen," Whittingham said.
Cody Kessler led the visitors on a 73-yard fourth-quarter march, completing a four-yard touchdown pass to Darreus Rogers for a 21-17 advantage with 10 minutes remaining.
Utah then drove down to the Southern Cal 40, but opted to take a delay of game penalty and punt instead of going for first down on fourth and six. Starting from its own 10, USC killed almost five minutes of clock but ultimately failed to convert on a fourth-and-2 at Utah's 27, paving the way for Utah's climactic drive.
"A true team comes back and fights their butt off to win a game, and that's what we did tonight," Booker said.
Teams traded punches from the opening kick.
Harkening back to USC's first Pac-12 visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium, when Nate Orchard recovered a fumble for a touchdown on the Trojans' second offensive play, Davion Orphey picked up a backward pass from Kessler and strolled 53 yards for a Utah touchdown just 30 seconds after kickoff.
Kessler's swing pass bounced off the hands of wideout Rogers and rolled forward until it was noticed by a tussling Orphey, who exchanged unsure glances with his teammates before realizing that no whistle had blown. The Trojans didn't come to that conclusion until seconds later, and it was too late.
But USC answered with a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 10-yard third-down strike to true freshman wide receiver JuJu Smith. The Utah defense entered the game leading the nation in sacks, but a young USC line held up against the rush, and that allowed Kessler to be even more surgical than usual.
Utah drove 74 yards on 14 plays on the ensuing drive, only to have junior running back Booker fumble the ball on the USC 1, recovered by J.R. Tavai. Two plays prior, Booker had a fumble pounced on by right guard Isaac Asiata, and junior Bubba Poole replaced him on the Utes' next series before fumbling it himself at the USC 6.
The Utes recovered it, however. Andy Phillips hit a 24-yard chip shot from the far right hash, and USC seized back momentum right back when wideout Adoree Johnson caught Phillips' kickoff five yards deep in his own end zone and returned it down the right sideline for a touchdown and a 14-10 Trojan lead.
Clay's 51-yard punt return to the USC 16 almost gave the Utes a jolt in the third quarter, trailing 14-10, but for the second time in the game they lost the ball for the second time on the USC 1-yard line.
But the Trojans made a critical error of their own. Kessler, who entered the game having thrown just one interception in 233 attempts, saw his pass tipped by Nelson Agholor and caught by Utah junior defensive-end-turned-linebacker Jason Fanaika for his first career interception.
After being stonewalled for the first 45 minutes of play, Booker burst through the Trojan front seven for a 24-yard touchdown.
The Utes will face Arizona State next week in Tempe, Ariz., where they have lost seven straight and the last four by a combined score of 148-29.
"I don't even think we've played our best game yet," Clay said. "… We've still got a lot of work to do, but I feel, definitely, like we improved today."