In the fall of 1916, miles from where the LA Memorial Coliseum was later to be built, USC welcomed Utah to its home ground at Fiesta Park for the two schools’ second football game. The Trojans, who just a few years earlier had started using that nickname, were fresh from two shutout victories over the Sherman Institute and Santa Fe Athletic Club and ready for their defense to dominate again.
Instead, USC received a rude awakening from its future conference enemy. Its defense was flattened by Utah in a loss apparently so demoralizing that for more than a century, the USC refused to lose again to Utah in Los Angeles.
It took 105 years for history to repeat itself. But when it finally did Saturday in yet another humiliating loss — this time at the Colosseum, this time with the Internet and high-definition television and the entire college football world watching — Utah was sure to pack a century of anxiety into the many blows it landed in a 42-26 victory over USC that was not as close as the end result indicated.
The most devastating of these battles came just before halftime, with the Trojans still holding on in the hope that they might avoid a third loss in a row at home. At fourth and one, with 10 seconds left in the half, Utah quarterback Cam Rising passed before the ball was thrown back to him on a flea flicker.
A discombobulated USC defense could only stare as Rise’s deep ball rose high above his head and into Devaughn Vele’s outstretched arms for a score of 37 yards. What was once a four-point lead heading into the half-ball for 11, left fans stunned and the team demoralized.
It only got worse from there as USC (3-3, 2-3 Pac-12) fell at home for the third time in a row, anything but the end of hopes of competition in the Pac-12.
“Three losses in Coli, it’s not a good feeling at all,” said center Brett Neilon. “They all have like a deja vu.”
Not since 2001, in Pete Carroll’s first season as coach, have the Trojans had three conference losses so early in the season.
“We have to make sure we get to bye and focus on ourselves,” said interim coach Donte Williams. “We have a lot of things to clean up.”
On Saturday, there were few positive things to take away from USC’s historic loss, outside of the usual, jaw-dropping performance of wide receiver Drake London, who caught 16 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown, only one catch missing to tie a USC record. Quarterback Kedon Slovis threw in 335 yards and a touchdown. USC turned the ball just once. Besides that, the Trojans prefer that their losses be lost relative to history.
In one of the season’s ugliest performances – a category that grows more competitive over the course of the week – USC’s defense was embarrassed through the air as Utah found open receiver after open receiver downfield.
“It’s like he could not miss,” said safety Isaiah Pola-Mao of Rising, who finished with 306 yards and three touchdowns. “He just made great plays.”
The Trojans’ offensive line was bullied in front, leaving Slovis to run for his life. While Utah (3-2, 2-0) took advantage of almost every opportunity — at one point, touchdowns scored on five of six drives — USC managed to squander most of its chances.
USC came out of the gate determined to regain the offensive balance it found last week in its victory in Colorado. It threw screen after screen, thinking and thumping to get the offense in rhythm. It got London going early with five catches in the first seven minutes. It even went on with the ground game and handed over to Keaontay Ingram and Darwin Barlow 10 times in the first quarter.
But after three trips to the Utah area, USC still had little to show for its efforts. An eight-play drive stalled … then an 11-play drive … then a 12-play drive. The Trojans could not take advantage of the door to the final zone, but settled for two attempts at short range but made only one as Parker Lewis missed his first kick in 11 attempts this season.
It would take a short Utah point, a short field for USC and a potential Heisman Trophy-fighting wideout to finally find pay dirt. Even when London caught a swing in space, it took an obstacle between two defenders for him to score from 20 yards out, which briefly gave the Trojans a lead. It would not last long. Utah’s flea flicker left the USC in the lump, and the Trojans never found their foothold again. Two late goals – from Vavae Malepeai and Malcolm Epps – would only hide the blow.
By the second half, as Utah opened with two more touchdowns in two drives, it even pulled back from its pummeling.
USC would end up with more yards (493 to 486), more games (78 to 63) and more possession time. But when the dust had settled and the story was created, it was USC, for the first time in 105 years, that would get rid of its head hanging again.
“The boys fought to the last,” Williams said. “But it’s not good enough at all.”