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SALT LAKE CITY — After a high-scoring first half, Utah found itself in a grind-it-out match with USC after a scoreless third quarter. The Utes were at the Trojans' heels early in the fourth, trailing 24-21.
Then Matt Barkley dropped the bomb.
The senior quarterback made an 83-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Marquis Lee to give the Trojans a 10-point lead, quieting the boisterous Rice-Eccles Stadium crowd.
"That's why he's one of the best in the country," Utah defensive end Star Lutulelei said of Barkley.
The connection between Barkley and Lee, which marked a career-long for both players, gave USC the cushion it needed to sell out with the blitz on the Utes' subsequent possession.
On a third down and seven, senior quarterback Jon Hays faced pressure from the strong side, forcing him to his left where he tossed up an ill-advised pass. USC cornerback Nickell Robey nabbed the floater and returned it 38 yards to seal the Trojan victory.
"Those two were the back breakers," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the two plays that proved most costly Thursday night.
"We were two plays from winning that game," Utah running back John White said. "The intercepted screen pass and the 83-yard touchdown. We had a formula heading into the game and fought until the end, but it wasn't enough."
"I pressed too much on the third-down screen pass," Hays said of his costly fourth-quarter interception. "A pick-6 in that situation can't show up."
The Utes had come out roaring, jumping out to a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter after two fumble recoveries, one of them returned by Nate Fakahafua for a touchdown during the opening minutes of the game.
"The defense did a great job and put us right where we wanted to be," Hays said. "I was disappointed in myself and our play in the fourth quarter."
Utah led 21-10 at one point in the second quarter, until USC scored four straight touchdowns to clinch the victory.