Lots of challenges, lots of freshmen

One of the reasons a USC team can go to Utah feeling like it can take on the 19th-ranked Utes in their biggest-ever Pac-12 game in history is the Trojans have had freshmen like Toa Lobendahn and JuJu Smith step up and answer the bell.

So who will it be, Steve Sarkisian was asked, which position group will be most challenged Saturday in Salt Lake City?

The idea was to get a single response. The offensive line, maybe, against the sack-happy Utes, the national leader in sacks (33), sacks per game (5.5) and tackles for loss per game (10.2). Defensive end Nate Orchard, a midseason Phil Steele All-American, already has 10.5 sacks, just 4.5 fewer than USC's entire defense.

So the leading question was pointed to the challenge for a young USC offensive line starting to come together. Easy answer, right?

But Sark wasn't going there. Some days you can get Sark moving in the direction you think he may go, some days not so much. This was one of those not-so-much days.

You think it's the O-line with the special challenge Saturday? Sark wouldn't say that. Here's what he did say: "The same could be said of our defensive line . . . and our special teams covering kicks . . . and our field goal protection . . . and our wide receivers," Sark said after noting he'd made a special challenge to that group.

Note that Sark did not include the USC travel band heading to Park City for a Friday march down Main Street and a pep rally. But if he'd thought of them, he probably would have.

They're all in this together, Sark was trying to say. The challenge that's out there in Salt Lake City Saturday (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1) is for everybody.

"We have a prideful team," Sark said. "I don't have to rely on outside motivators." Nor does he want to.

He wants the USC defense to go in with the "attitude" they've developed recently. 'it's just the way they take the field," Sark says. How they're playing "more physical" and doing a better job "getting to the quarterback."

Speaking of quarterbacks, Sark was asked which Utah position or player was most improved. "The quarterback," he said cryptically. Naturally that required a followup: "Which one?"

"Both of them," Sark said of San Clemente's Travis Wilson, the passer who is 4-1 in his starts and will get the start Saturday, and Kendal Thompson, the Oklahoma transfer/option runner who is 1-0 in his but best remembered for a game he didn't start in leading Utah to a come-from-behind win at UCLA.

"They both are relatively talented," Sark said of a two-QB system that's probably not supposed to be that way and not something he's ever been involved with, he said "as a player or coach . . . that's how they choose to do it . . . " Or maybe that's how they do it because they have no choice.

The thing that's changed for the Utes, Sark said all week, is they've figured out how to be a downhill running team with Devontae Booker, second only to Buck Allen in Pac-12 rushing with 123.7 yards a game (to Allen's 129.9) after averaging 188 yards a game the last three times out.

Talking Toa and more JuJu

With a dad who played for Utah and having been born in Salt Lake City, freshman left guard Toa Lobendahn, who has started every game for the Trojans, seemed a natural mention this week. But not for those reasons exactly.

"The moment just is not too big for him," Sark said, ticking off all the reasons he's been able to take in stride starting as a true freshman on a big-time O-line with the tradition of USC.

"He was really well-prepared, physically and mentally, when he got here," Sark said, "his dad [Vince] was a coach."

But the convincer was when Sark made his home visit with the Lobendahn family. "They had a weight room in the kitchen," Sark said.

But Toa wasn't the only frosh to get a mention. On a team with six freshmen who have started a game (Utah has two), it always seems to get around to wide receiver Juju Smith, who has started six times for USC.

"What makes JuJu special," Sark says, isn't just that he's "a big, strong, powerful" wide receiver but that "as a 17-year-old guy, the enrgy he brings every day . . . credit some of that to Nelson [Agholor] but we can't take him off special teams . . . he won't come out. That I think is what makes him great."


Who will be USC's kickoff man Saturday will be a game-time decision, or if it's already decided, Sark wasn't saying Thursday . . . "We'll figure that out Saturday," Sark said . . . But it looks like placekicker Andre Heidari after missing the last two Saturdays with a slight groin pull, will assume the FG kicker's role since backup Alex Wood has yet to attempt a field goal in a game . . . But Wood, who has kicked seven of 14 of his kickoffs for touchbacks, could get the call against the dangerous Ute return team in the high altitude or does Heidari, who has gone nine of 30 into the end zone . . . Still to be determined as to their ready-to-play situations are wide receivers Ajene Harris and George Farmer along with special teams star and fullback Soma Vainuku and maybe safety Gerald Bowman although he said Wednesday he'd be ready to go. . . Pretty much set to go: Hayes Pullard and Adoree Jackson . . . But maybe everybody will be ready since Sark did say when asked if they had determined if anyone was out for Saturday: "Not yet . . . I think we'll be OK." . . . No one is not making the trip that we know of . . . so much noise here from the never-ending reconstruction of McCintock Avenue that USC didn't need to play crowd noises although Sark says they never do for Thursdays since it's a day for getting all the details right . . . but there was plenty of sound and fury outside the fence.

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

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