SALT LAKE CITY — USC could not have imagined a worse start.
Two fumbles on the first two possessions. Two Utah touchdowns.
All with a national television audience watching to see if the Trojans would repeat the performance they gave the last time they were on the road.
But No. 13 USC showed something Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Trojans, behind quarterback Matt Barkley, overcame the deficit by halftime, toughed out two missed scoring opportunities in the second half and came up with big plays on offense and defense in the fourth quarter for a 38-28 victory.
Barkley's 83-yard touchdown pass to receiver Marqise Lee and Nickell Robey's interception return for a touchdown put the finishing touches on a victory that helped the Trojans improve to 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-12 Conference.
"We don't get down," said tight end Randall Telfer, who made a one-handed touchdown catch. "We showed a lot of heart."
On a night when USC committed 14 penalties and kicker Andre Heidari missed two second-half field-goal attempts, the Trojans rallied.
Barkley, who had four passes intercepted in the previous two games, passed three touchdowns, with no interceptions. He completed 23 of 30 passes for 303 yards and might have rekindled some of his preseason hype with a poised performance after a near-disastrous start.
"It was rough start and we kind of let them hang in the game," Barkley said on the field after seeking out Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. "I thought our guys did a good job of not letting that really hurt us.
"It could have, but we bounced back and came back pretty strong."
The last time USC played Utah in this city, in 1917, the Trojans routed the Utes, 51-0.
But the Trojans' start was more reminiscent of 2008, when a top-ranked Trojans team traveled to Oregon State for a Thursday night game and got pushed around in a loss.
This time, however, USC came back.
"At the end of the day as you go through your season and your team builds itself, those things are good," Coach Lane Kiffin said.
USC benefited from outstanding performances by receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.
Woods overcame what looked like a possible serious head injury and caught six passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. He moved into a second-place tie on USC's career list with Keary Colbert with 207 receptions.
Lee finished with 12 catches for 192 yards, none bigger than the long pass he hauled in for a touchdown that put the Trojans ahead, 31-21, with 12:10 left in the game.
"In my head," Lee said, "I was thinking, 'I don't want to run down all this way without catching the ball.'"
Robey then picked off a pass by Utah quarterback Jon Hays and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown and a 17-point lead.
Robey said Utah made it easy.
"They started running the same play over and over again," he said.
Said Utah running back John White: "We were two plays from winning that game."
USC led, 24-21, at halftime, overcoming the near-disastrous start and a Utah team that kept the pressure on.
Center Khaled Holmes' return from an ankle injury was supposed to provide stability against a Utah front led by Lotulelei. But the first two series looked like complete breakdowns.
On the second play of the game, Barkley lined up in shotgun formation. Holmes' snap bounced off the ground and Barkley grabbed it. But Utah defensive end Nate Fakahafua ripped it from Barkley's grasp and ran eight yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
On the third play of the next possession, Barkley bobbled a snap and Lotulelei recovered the ball at the USC 13-yard line.
Hays then lofted a pass to receiver Kenneth Scott in the end zone for a 14-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
USC kept its composure, with tailback Silas Redd capping a 75-yard drive with a short touchdown run in the first quarter and Heidari kicking a field goal in the second quarter to pull the Trojans within 14-10.
Hays' 18-yard touchdown pass to DeVonte Christopher increased the lead, but Telfer's one-handed catch for a 33-yard touchdown cut the margin to 21-17.
A Utah fumble opened the door for the Trojans, and Barkley made the Utes pay with a six-yard touchdown pass to Woods for a 24-21 lead.