LOS ANGELES -- Losing is misery. Losing a close game is doubly-so. Utah center Tevita Stevens and his teammates trudged off the Coliseum field and into the long, cavernous tunnel that leads to the locker room thinking about all the "what ifs," all the moments that make a game what it is instead of what it might have been.
Misery, yes, but Stevens couldn't help but look up and notice something a bit surprising, particularly in jaded LA. USC fans weren't jeering them. They weren't even ignoring them.
"It kind of impressed me that when we were walking out all of the USC fans were standing up applauding us," he said.
That small bit of color observed, Stevens added: "But we're not satisfied with that."
There are no moral victories. Utah didn't come to the Coliseum, didn't join the Pac-12, expecting to be satisfied with being competitive, with not being an easy out.
The Utes expect to win.
"There's no happiness in a loss," Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn said to reporters who were plumbing for some consoling parting gifts in a 23-14 nailbiter that wasn't decided in USC's favor until the final ticks clicked off the game clock.
Said coach Kyle Whittingham after praising his team's fight, "In no way am I trying to paint the picture of a moral victory. There is no such thing in my mind."
USC mostly had control of the line of scrimmage: It rushed for 152 yards and the Utes managed just 81. It outgained Utah 416 yards to 319. But the Trojans also were sloppier: three turnovers to one for Utah, including two deep in Utes territory. And that helped the Utes hang around and be in position to win -- or at least force overtime -- in the end.
Utah took over at its 33-yard with 1:01 left and no time outs, trailing 17-14. Wynn found Dres Anderson for 18 yards to get things going. Then, on fourth-and-10 from the USC 49-yard line, Wynn connected with DeVonte Christopher for just enough for a first down -- it was so close the play required a review and changed spot that added critical inches to the Utes case.
Anderson drew a pass interference penalty on Tony Burnett, and that left Utah on the 24 with 11 seconds remaining.
"I thought we were going to get overtime," Wynn said.
But Coleman Petersen's 41-yard field goal attempt was low and was easily blocked by Matt Kalil. Game over. (Hours after the game, the Pac-12 office ruled that Torin Harris' return of the block counted as a touchdown, so the extra points were added after the fact).
"Honestly, I thought we had it," Stevens said. "It was heartbreaking."
The end-result is the Utah record book won't celebrate the program's first-ever Pac-12 game as a red-letter victory but merely as something that happened. And, yes, that is meaningful.
"To try to belittle it all, like it was just another game would be a lie," Stevens said. "We came in here wanting to prove something, that we can hang in this conference."
That won't be a problem if the defense continues to play this well, particularly in the red zone, and Wynn continues to rediscover his groove.
Wynn's performance is particularly encouraging. After looking tentative and out of sync in the opener against Montana State, he stepped up his game considerably in a hostile venue that just happened to include many family and friends for the Southern California native.
Wynn completed 23-of-46 for 238 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. It wasn't exceptional by any measure, but it was encouraging to see him letting loose after shoulder surgery ended his 2010 season. Wynn appears to have an A-list target in DeVonte Christopher, who caught 11 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown.
Utah can't be too miserable. The schedule doesn't lighten up with a visit to BYU on Saturday, a rivalry game that will feel odd in September instead of at season's end.
But losing on the last play to USC, when victory seemed just over the horizon, is miserable.
A moral victory? Earning respect? Proving it belonged? Whittingham, Stevens and Wynn all indicated that's something fans and media can debate.
Said Stevens, "To all those all those who were watching, it's up to them to decide whether we belong."