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During Utah's final, futile drive in a lost cause Saturday night, Ute quarterback Travis Wilson kept picking himself up off the Coliseum grass as coach Kyle Whittingham repeatedly called timeouts.
The purpose for the prolonged effort apparently was not designed as punishment for Wilson, allowing him to absorb more sacks and hits and throw one last interception. Punctuation, though? Absolutely.
The enduring image of No. 3 Utah's first defeat of the season, a 42-24 loss to USC, is of people in cardinal jerseys catching Wilson's passes. That's how this thing ended, with Whittingham using another timeout with 14 seconds left in an 18-point game, with the coach later explaining, "Miracles happen."
Wow. Not of that magnitude. Maybe the Utes just wanted to extend their moment as a No. 3-ranked team. The reality is nearly every college football team will be exposed at some point this season and it happened to Utah (6-1), against a formerly underachieving opponent.
"We didn't expect to get punched in the mouth like that," said Ute linebacker Gionni Paul although he did his part with 17 tackles, including 5.5 tackles for loss.
Much sorting out remains to be done about how much this loss will cost the Utes. File the Pac-12 South title and the Rose Bowl as definitely still in play; check back in late November about the College Football Playoff.
Plenty of blame for what unfolded Saturday is available beyond Wilson's four interceptions counting his last, meaningless heave. But this is a fact: Utah was leading 14-7 and showing signs of taking over this game in the second quarter, until Wilson started connecting regularly with Cameron Smith.
Smith finished the game as Wilson's No. 4 target. That's a problem, considering he's a USC linebacker. Two of Smith's three interceptions led to touchdowns, via a 4-yard offensive drive and his own 54-yard return to the end zone.
During a halftime interview on the stadium video screen, USC coach Clay Helton credited Smith with "reading the quarterback's eyes," which 70,000-plus fans already knew.
"I just didn't make smart decisions … just gotta make better throws," Wilson said.
Whatever his explanation lacked, his obvious disappointment covered. He's from just down I-5 in San Clemente and would have loved to beat USC again, after delivering a winning drive against the Trojans last October and being carried off the Rice-Eccles Stadium field on the shoulders of adoring fans. Instead, this visit to the Coliseum more closely resembled his experience as a sophomore in 2013, when he struggled with an injured hand and the Utes were held to three points.
Whittingham cited the offense's turnovers and the defense's absence of takeaways as critical, while partly absolving Wilson and defending his numbers: 24 of 36 for 254 yards and two touchdowns. But those stats are deceiving, with exactly 100 yards and a score coming in the last five minutes after Utes trailed 42-17.
Amid all of the variables in this matchup, this much was clear: Somebody was going to be upset. Either the No. 3 Utes would sustain their first defeat or the oddsmakers' favored Trojans would fall on their home field.
An adventurous first half initially trended toward Utah, then swung entirely to USC. The Trojans scored a touchdown on their opening drive, then could not contain Britain Covey. The Ute freshman's 30-yard catch was good for a score, then he set up another with a 40-yard, weaving, tackle-breaking punt return.
At that point, Wilson was looking sharp and the Utes seemingly were about to take command. But then as the second quarter began, Wilson suddenly became erratic. After a 9-for-9 start, Wilson went 2 for 9 with two interceptions and a missed tackle, on the scoring play.
The pick-six came on a fourth-and-2 play from the USC 45-yard line, where punting was an alternative, with a struggling QB. Whittingham was convinced of a high success probability. Instead, the play went horribly awry and the Utes never recovered after Smith ran through Wilson to the end zone for a 28-14 lead.
In fairness, Wilson was credited with an assisted tackle after Smith's third interception. That just was not nearly enough to salvage his night, or extend Utah's unbeaten season.
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