SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – In what may go down as the strangest season-opener in school history, the Utah football team committed five turnovers in a 33-17 loss to USC Saturday night at an empty Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The loss ends Utah’s 11-game home winning streak.
The Utes had its first two games against Arizona and UCLA canceled because of too many positive COVID-19 tests, but were finally able to kick off the 2020 season against the Trojans.
Cam Rising started at quarterback for the Utes, but he threw an interception, fumbled and left the game with a shoulder injury.
Jake Bentley came into replace him at the end of the first quarter, and completed 16 of 28 passes for 177 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
“This was our first game and our first opportunity to show what we’re all about,” Bentley said. “And unfortunately we didn’t do that tonight. The defense did a great job, but offensively we’ve got to play better, and that starts with me.”
Kedon Slovis led the 20th-ranked Trojans with 264 yards passing and two touchdowns, as the Trojans improved to 3-0 on the season.
The long layoff didn’t do the Utes any favors as they made critical errors and couldn’t get any rhythm going on offense. Consistent quarterback pressure by the Trojans and a rugged rush defense had a lot to do with that.
“I thought we’d be much more productive offensively with the veterans we have there,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Our O-line didn’t take control or push people around like we expected.”
Rising, a Texas transfer, made his first start for Utah but threw an interception in the first quarter and then was strip-sacked by Marlon Tuipulotu for his second turnover injured his shoulder on the play.
“Cam and his shoulder took a pretty good shot, so we’ll find out more tomorrow,” Whittingham said. “But if Jake is the guy, then we’ll rally. behind him.”
Vavae Malepeai scored on a short run one play later to give USC a 10-3 lead.
The Utes defense kept the team in it for most of the game. Maxs Tupai sacked Slovis, forced a fumble, and Nephi Sewell scooped up the loose ball and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown to the game game, 10-10.
Bentley, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, replaced Rising but was often off target. After two negative-yard drives and misfires on his first four passes, Bentley used a 33-yard run to spark the Utes’ offense and capped the half with a 7-yard touchdown strike to Samson Nacua. USC led 24-17 at halftime.
The USC defense, led by Kana’i Mauga’s 11 tackles, harassed Bentley and kept Utah scoreless in the second half. After two comeback wins, USC’s first victory in Salt Lake City since 2012 ended without much drama.
In the second half, USC engineered three drives that concluded in Parker Lewis field goals. The defense did the rest.
Slovis hit Tyler Vaughns for an 8-yard score after a 42-yard completion to Vaughns that finally got the Trojans’ offense rolling.
On a run-pass option, Slovis threw a 10-yard touchdown to Erik Krommenhoek for a 24-10 lead.
The Utes have annually featured one of the Pac-12’s top defenses, but they had to replace nine defensive starters from last season. Surprisingly, it was the lack of offense that scuttled any upset bid.
Devin Lloyd led the defense with 11 tackles, while Sewell had an interception to go along with his fumble recovery.
“We knew it was going to take some time with this young group but we hope it will come soon,” Whittingham said about his defense.
Jordan Wilmore led Utah in rushing with 38 yards on 10 carries, while Bryan Thompson led the Utes with 48 yards receiving.
Utah’s next game at Arizona State was moved from Saturday to Sunday, November 29th. Kickoff time is yet to be determined. The Sun Devils have not played the last two games because of too many positive COVID tests.