USC edges Utah in wild finish of inaugural Pac-12 game
LOS ANGELES -- If Southern California's victory in the first game in Pac-12 history is any indication of what's in store, the rest of the country had better not fall asleep before the West Coast games are finished.
It might be a good idea to stay up for a few hours after that, too.
Matt Kalil blocked Utah's 41-yard field goal attempt on the final play and Torin Harris returned it for a touchdown that wasn't counted until two hours after the game ended in USC's 23-14 win Saturday night in this expanded league's wacky debut.
Matt Barkley passed for 264 yards for the Trojans (2-0, 1-0), but the Utes drove into field-goal range from their 33 in the final 1:01, helped by two favorable rulings that put them in position for a tying field goal.
That's when Kalil easily swatted down Coleman Petersen's low kick. Harris returned it 68 yards, all the way into the Utah end zone.
"It hit my forearm, so it didn't even get over my hand," said Kalil, the Trojans' 6-foot-7 left tackle. "Luckily, I'm a tall guy."
Almost everybody in the Coliseum thought the officials ruled Harris' touchdown didn't count because of an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty called when much of the USC bench ran onto the field to celebrate, mobbing him in the end zone. But long after the Coliseum had emptied, the Pac-12 announced that Harris had scored after all, saying the penalty was what didn't count.
"All Unsportsmanlike Conduct fouls by substitutes (on the bench) are enforced as dead ball fouls," Pac-12 officiating consultant Mike Pereira said in a league statement. "Since the game was over, the penalty could not be enforced, and the referee stated it was declined by rule. The officials did rule it a touchdown, making the final score 23-14."
USC was favored by eight or nine points for most of the week leading up to the game.
Whatever the final score, it sure was a unique debut for the Pac-12.
Marc Tyler rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown in his return from suspension, and Robert Woods had eight catches for 102 yards for the Trojans.
"I was trying to follow what was going on with the refs, but we had so many chances to put that game away," said Barkley, who went 20 for 32. "The defense won this game for us, no doubt about it."
The Pac-12's debut game matched the conference's newest member against the winningest program in league history. Once the biggest BCS-busters outside Boise State, Utah and its raucous fans didn't look at all out of place in the venerable Coliseum.
"It was baptism by fire," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We stayed toe-to-toe, but we have to find a way to win close games. ... If you have a group of competitive guys, you want to play the best in the country. Personnel-wise, USC stacks up with anyone in the country."
Perhaps so do the Utes (1-1, 0-1). A week after USC was shut out in the second half by lowly Minnesota, Utah forced three key turnovers and shut out the Trojans for the final 24 minutes -- other than the crazy return on the final play.
Neither team was particularly impressive offensively in the second half, with nobody scoring at all in the final 21 minutes. Barkley threw a 9-yard scoring pass to Xavier Grimble, but the Trojans also committed two turnovers deep in Utah territory in the first half.
"It's never fun to lose that way," said Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn, who passed for 238 yards and a touchdown. "We gave ourselves a chance. We drove down there. I thought we were going to play some more football, but it didn't work out that way."
After Wynn threw three incompletions on Utah's final drive, USC thought it had won when Harris tackled DeVonte Christopher inches shy of the first-down marker with 20 seconds left. But after video review, officials changed the spot and gave a first down to Utah.
Tony Burnett then committed pass interference with 11 seconds left, moving Utah to the Trojans 24. The Utes immediately got their field-goal team on the field.
USC students poured out of the stands to join Harris and his jubilant teammates.
Imagine the celebration if they'd known the score counted.
"It did kind of seem like forever," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "You kept hoping for a play that would end the game. ... I thought our guys came out good again. We're there. We're playing really well in all phases of the game. We're just not putting people away."
Christopher had 11 catches for 136 yards and a score for the Utes, who hadn't played USC in the Coliseum since 1948. South Los Angeles native John White rushed for a score for the Utes, but they struggled to move the ball consistently all day.
Tyler returned to the USC lineup after missing the season opener under team suspension for a series of misdeeds culminating in an ill-advised appearance on TMZ. The Trojans' leading rusher last season was allowed to return to practice late last month, and he ran with obvious urgency in his return, getting 24 carries.
"This is something I've dreamed about doing since I got in trouble, just coming back and being a big impact to the fans and my teammates," Tyler said.
USC kicker Andre Heidari scored the first points in Pac-12 history on a 47-yard field goal, and Tyler scored the first touchdown late in the first quarter on a short drive set up by White's fumble.
After USC freshman D.J. Morgan fumbled, Utah finally solved USC's defense with a 12-play, 84-yard drive culminating in Wynn's 10-yard TD pass to Christopher with 34 seconds left.
USC scored its final points on an 88-yard drive shortly after halftime featuring three big receptions by Grimble, the freshman tight end from Las Vegas. One play before Grimble's 9-yard TD catch, the Utes committed two penalties against Woods on the same play, determined to disrupt USC's top playmaker after his school-record 17 catches last week.
2022 Pac-12 Conference Standings