Utah tops USC in late-night thriller, 24-21

The all-black clad crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium was treated to a thriller Saturday night as the No. 19 Utes stole the victory away from No. 20 USC in the final seconds, 24-21.

The game got off to a strange but electric start for the home team as a lateral pass from USC quarterback Cody Kessler was dropped on the second play of the game. Utah cornerback Davion Orphey picked up the questionable ball and unknowingly jogged toward the end zone until he fully realized that the play had not been blown dead by the officials. Orphey ran the rest of the 53 yards with Kessler on his tail and dove into the end zone for the game’s opening score.

Less than five minutes later, the USC offense responded with a score of its own. Kessler found receiver JuJu Smith across the middle of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass that knotted the game at 7-7.

The Utah offense, which had struggled mightily outside of the running game in recent weeks, came out throwing led by quarterback Travis Wilson who had a breakout game after spending the last two games in a sort of quarterback purgatory. Wilson finished the game with 18 completions on 32 attempts for 194 yards passing.

Wilson led the Utes down the field on their first offensive possession with a good mix of passing and rushing and ended up down at the USC one-yard line. The USC defense caught a break as Utah running back Devontae Booker fumbled the ball shy of the goal line which was recovered by the Trojans.

The remainder of the first quarter, as well as a majority of the second quarter, was a defensive battle until Utah broke the defensive deadlock with a 24-yard field goal by Andy Phillips that put the Utes back on top 10-7.

The Trojans took their first lead of the game on the ensuing kickoff when Adoree’ Jackson broke through the Utah coverage team and sprinted 100 yards for the touchdown to make the score 14-10 Trojans.

The third quarter saw another back-and-forth match of defense with offensive miscues strewn throughout. With 3:49 remaining in the quarter, the Utes were looking to retake the lead once again when Wilson found Tim Patrick for a completion near the end zone, but while fighting to cross the goal line Patrick fumbled the ball which was recovered by USC for a touchback.

“We made a few errors tonight that could have made the game different. Obviously the fumbles,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “No game is ever perfect, but those are the things that really stood out as far as not doing the things as well as we should.”

A few plays later, it was the Trojan offense that slipped up as Kessler threw a pass behind his intended receiver which was tipped up and intercepted by Utah linebacker Jason Fanaika. The Utes capitalized on the USC turnover as Booker ran up the middle 24 yards to pay-dirt to put the Utes back on top 17-14.

The Trojans got back on track to start the fourth quarter when Kessler found Darreus Rogers in the middle of the end zone for a four yard touchdown to give the Trojans a 21-17 lead with 10:18 remaining in the game.

An unsuccessful Utah drive after the USC touchdown gave the Trojans the ball with seven minutes remaining in the game. The Utah defense did what they had done most of the night, bending at times to the Trojan offense, but ultimately not breaking. The Utes held USC on fourth-and-two in their own end of the field to take over on downs with 2:08 left in the game.

On the final drive of the evening for the Utes, Wilson completed passes to receivers Kenneth Scott, Dres Anderson and Tim Patrick, as well as Booker to put Utah in a position to score the winning touchdown. On second-and-three from the USC 19-yard line, Wilson escaped pressure and barreled down the sideline towards the end zone. Wilson leapt towards the goal line and scored what was thought to be the go-ahead score until the play was overruled by the officials. The ball was placed at the one-yard line with 17 seconds left on the game clock.

Utah burned their final timeout after Booker was stuffed at the goal line for no gain. On the next play, Wilson found a diving Kaelin Clay in the corner of the end zone to definitively put the Utes on top 24-21.

With USC needing a Hail Mary heave to win the game on the final play of the night, the Utah defensive line did what they had struggled to do most of the night and sacked Kessler to seal the victory.

“I’m speechless right now,” Booker said after the game. “We came out here and started out rough, but we came back and fought our butts off to win the game.”

After the game Whittingham praised all of his players for the fight they exhibited in the second half.

“Bottom line is the defense hung in there and the offense got going when we needed to,” Whittingham said. “We weren’t spectacular on offense, but we were consistent. We threw the ball a lot better. Booker went over 100 yards again and those yards were hard to come by. A lot of good things in the game, but the best thing is that we are 6-1.”

The Utes’ sixth win gives the team bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011 and the victory over USC gives them a 3-1 conference record heading into a tough road matchup with No. 14 Arizona State in Tempe next weekend.