'Playing with an attitude' at altitude

Heading off to a big road game against a fired-up fan base filling an opponents' stadium was always one of the great treats for Trojans football players. Is it getting that way again? We'll see Saturday in Salt Lake City.

There's a feel here this week -- this USC-going-to-Utah week. And it's a familiar one.

For those who've been around USC football for a while, there were a number of these moments -- trips to a higher-ranked Colorado way back in 2002, trips to Auburn and Arkansas, Oregon and Notre Dame -- when the home fans were all fired-up and couldn't wait to get the Trojans in their stadium.

The only problem for them: Those Trojans teams couldn't wait to get there as well. If truth be told, they enjoyed those road games more than the home games. They were what you'd come to USC for. Why you were a Trojan.

Haven't had so much of that the last handful of years for reasons we all know. But there's a hint of it in the air this week. It's a big game. A game that matters. A place that will be full of fire and fury. And a sense that this is what good USC teams do.

They go to Utah, a 19th-ranked Utes team one spot higher than the Trojans in the AP Poll, and show them what it takes to compete at this level. C'mon and compete, this USC team may be on the verge of saying if practice means anything.

"They practiced really, really hard," Sark said, starting with the prepractice meetings. Like they know what it takes. What it will take.

"A lot of energy," Sark said. When you bring it like this for a midseason Wednesday practice, "it gives me a sense of the focus they have going into this game."

Michael Hutchings, getting the chance to go for Hayes Pullard as he returns from his knee bruise by the end of the week, noticed. "When it gets to Wednesday and we're past the soreness, Sark really likes to bring it and get us running around out there," Hutchings said, especially when it's ones against ones.

"It really helps me to get up to speed," says Hutchings who got 30 snaps last week. "It really is almost like game speed out there. The tempo is fast and much more crisp." As are, USC hopes, its players.

Leonard Williams likes that feel in what may be his best week of practice this year. He sees his Trojans teammates, the young guys especially, starting to get it -- as are their coaches. It's why they're playing the run better.

"They're big physical guys," Leonard says of the Utes O-line, smiling as he says it. "Same as it's been the three years I've been here." It'll be a battle, Leonard agrees. And he can't wait.

This is the best the USC defense has played against the run, something that should come in handy against a downhill-running Utah team. Much the way Pete Carroll's teams could stop the run as a starting point to controlling games.

It's simple, Sark says, of how a USC team that gave up 452 yards on the ground to Boston College, has been able to limit three straight Pac-12 opponents Oregon State (58 yards), Arizona State (31) and Arizona (77) to 166 total before last week's Colorado romp.

We're winning the one-on-one battles," Sark says. "We're healthy and deeper . . . and playing with an attitude."

The last four are the operative words: "playing with an attitude."

Carroll's good teams did it and last year, Ed Orgeron's guys managed to do the same for the most part in an emergency midseason correction. Watch Lane Kiffin's 2011 team at Notre Dame and Oregon. That was attitude that came from somewhere deep down in their Trojan DNA. Not to mention talent in all the right places.

Those teams didn't think anyone owed them anything. What they'd get would be what they could take away from whoever was on the other side of the ball. They'd worked harder and smarter and were pretty sure how it was going to turn out when they put it on the line.

Now everything has to work from here on out. Playcalling can't be a bust. There are still more freshmen up front -- and in the secondary -- than any ranked team has played in recent years. And they're trying something -- this hybrid uptempo game with elements of the classic pro-style with two backs and motion -- that no one else has done exactly this way.

'It takes time," is the case Sark makes. But their time is up, these USC players seem to be saying. "Nelson Agholor, Juju Smith, Buck Allen . . . " Sark ticks off their names one by one, "and Leonard Williams practices his tail off out there. They really set the tone."


Sark jumped on the naming of the USC Spirit of Troy marching band as No. 1 in the nation this week: "They deserve it," Sark said, noting how Art Bartner and Co. are and always have been an integral part of the football program as well as having a starring role in their own right . . . Mostly good news for a second day on the health/rehab/injury front in Wednesday's helmets, shoulder pads and shorts workout . . . Adoree Jackson says he's 100 percent, has been icing his hip and groin and will definitely play both defense and special teams Saturday at Utah . . . said maybe rest wasn't the right answer and has been doing a good deal of stretching and icing in recent days . . . Not sure of his role on offense, he says . . . Leonard Williams is having the best week of the year in practice after slightly hyperextending his shoulder Saturday . . . he's been in full pads and has been working on his diet, his rest and hydrating himself . . . while Hayes Pullard appears almost all the way back from that hit below his knee Saturday, Gerald Bowman is being brought along a little more carefully for his sprained foot. . . did mostly bike-riding . . . Soma Vainuku may be the guy who has the farthest to come back for his hamstring pull but he was out on the field and in pads after rehabbing . . . Both George Farmer and Ajene Harris being brought back carefully with Ajene farther along than George . . . Steven Mitchell suffered a "twinge," Sark called it and was iced up for a while on his right lower leg, it appeared, but was back up and walking ice-free at the end . . . Placekicker Andre Heidari, after missing the last two Saturdays with a slight groin pull, assumed his role as first in field goal work with Alex Wood looking more like he'll be the kickoff guy Saturday.

For a wrapup of Wednesday morning's practice, check out WEDNESDAY UTAH WEEK GHOST NOTES.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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