USC tries not to let loss to Utah define season

SALT LAKE CITY — USC’s players had all the tell-tale signs in their press conferences inside a jubilant Rice-Eccles Stadium. Quiet, raspy voices devoid of emotion. To-the-point answers. Red eyes.

The Trojans had suffered a defeat — 43-42 to Utah, to be precise. But in talking with the players there was a common refrain: The only goal no longer achievable was a perfect season. Everything else, they believe, is still on the table.

“This team has got a real shot. We’ve got to go do it,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “It ain’t going to just happen. If we handle this like I think we will, we’ve got a real shot.”

These aren’t the days of the recent past, when USC played down to an opponent and was beaten by a team that was penciled in as a win. The Utes are the defending Pac-12 champions, and the first ranked opponent USC has faced.

And for vast swaths of the game, it felt as if USC had the chance to embarrass Utah at its home stadium.

The Trojans jumped to a two-touchdown lead that could have turned to three had it not been for a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty that led to Utah’s first score. And USC had a chance to make it a two-score game in the second half when linebacker Eric Gentry forced a fumble on the goal line. But the Trojans were unable to capitalize on the turnover.

And the USC defense had several opportunities to get off the field on the Utes’ game-winning drive. But the Trojans allowed three third-down conversions and then quarterback Cam Rising’s fourth-and-goal scramble into the end zone.

But USC wanted to remind itself that this was not the end of its season.

“You gotta keep going,” running back Travis Dye said. “Everything, all of our needs are right in front of us. College football is always a coin toss in the air. Always will be. So we just gotta keep chugging.”

The defense will have to do the most soul searching before the next game at Arizona. The unit had seemed much improved through the past few weeks, and had a knack throughout the season for playing its best in the second half.

But Utah scored on three of its four second-half possessions. The only stop USC got was on the Gentry forced fumble. The Trojans gave up 291 yards in the second half, 204 of which came through the air, typically USC’s stronger area.

“We can’t sulk on this moment,” defensive end Nick Figueroa said. “We just gotta fix what needs to be fixed and move forward.”

USC heads into a bye week now, a chance to reflect and get healthy, which is handy after Gentry (ankle) and receiver Jordan Addison (leg) left the game with injuries.

It could also be time for USC to dwell on the loss and let the defeat grow toxic. But Dye, who has quickly become a leader for this team, was not worried about that possibility.

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“We have a lot of leaders on this team, a lot of older guys that can teach the younger guys how to deal with something like this,” Dye said. “Honestly, I feel like it’s going to fuel the fire a lot.”

But there was still the sorrow in the post-game locker room, as players tried to hold each other up.

It’s the first defeat that this team has suffered under Riley and the new staff he brought together. The first defeat the returning players have shared with all their new teammates who transferred from other programs.

And in that, there was a lesson to be learned.

“It meant a lot to see some dudes cry,” left guard Andrew Vorhees said. “It revealed a lot about this team. Our character. Competitive spirit. I think there’s a lot to look forward to the rest of the season for us.”

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