May 28, 2024

It couldn’t be happening again, could it? After two devastating defeats last season, this was supposed to be USC’s chance at long-awaited catharsis, a shot at finally landing a return punch on Utah, which had been without its star quarterback — and a functional offense — all season.

As the 14th-ranked Utes took a two-score lead into the fourth quarter Saturday at the Coliseum, that familiar heartbreak that struck a season ago in Salt Lake City seemed to gurgle up.

USC’s offense had struggled to move the ball. Its defense had struggled to get a stop, but got a huge lift from Calen Bullock’s pick-six early in the fourth.

Still, USC trailed by five after a late field goal, and Utah was getting the ball back with three minutes left. Boos rang out throughout the Coliseum. Considering the slide that started the previous Saturday at Notre Dame, desperation was setting in.

Then, the defense forced a three-and-out, Zachariah Branch, the electric freshman, took off on a 61-yard punt return, and hope suddenly reemerged. A play later, Caleb Williams hit pay dirt on an 11-yard run, giving USC a one-point lead.

But hope was no match for crippling heartbreak. Not against Utah. Not for USC, which let victory slip away as the Utes drove for a field goal and dealt USC a devastating 34-32 defeat.

Utah kicker Cole Becker celebrates with teammates after kicking a 38-yard field goal as time expired.

Utah kicker Cole Becker celebrates with teammates after kicking a 38-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Utes to victory over the Trojans at the Coliseum on Saturday night.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

All evening it seemed USC had no business escaping with a victory. Not as Williams had another middling game, passing for 256 yards and not a single score.

Yet USC’s fourth-quarter plays put it in position to steal a win. Then familiar issues showed up on Utah’s final drive, including Bear Alexander penalties giving the Utes a first down. Even after that, Utah stood at the USC 40 with 16 seconds left, just outside of field goal range.

It was then that the Utes seized destiny while USC cowered in the face of it, as quarterback Bryson Barnes took off, winding his way through the defense until he made his way to the 19-yard line, well within range for Utah kicker Cole Becker.

All Becker had to do was hit a field goal from 38 yards out to deal USC yet another devastating defeat.

This one bore a sadly striking resemblance to last October, when USC let Utah drive and quarterback Cam Rising complete a two-point conversion to take a lead with seconds remaining.

Except this time, Utah was without Rising, its hero from the last two matchups. Rising had run roughshod over USC in them, including the Pac-12 title game.

Utah didn’t need him this time as backup Barnes had a career-best performance, bashing USC’s brutal defense for 235 yards and three touchdowns.

It was Barnes who would fittingly deal that final blow, the one that could leave USC heartbroken and its season on the brink.

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