USC vs. Utah Preview

The Trojans visit the Utes in a surprise battle of ranked foes jockeying for position in the Pac-12 South race.

Game 8: ‘On a Rattlesnake Speedway in the Utah Desert …’

The USC Trojans (5-2, 4-1 Pac-12 South), ranked No. 20 by the Associated Press (AP) and No. 21 by USA Today, face off with the consensus No. 19 Utah Utes (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12 South) on Saturday, October 25 at 7 p.m. PDT in Salt Lake City’s Rice-Eccles Stadium and in front of a national Fox Sports 1 cable television audience. It’s the 13th meeting between the schools with the Trojans holding a 9-3 edge in the series. USC has won all three conference meetings, including a 19-3 victory last October in the Coliseum and a 38-28 win in the most recent Salt Lake City meeting in 2012.

A week ago, USC rode a school-record seven touchdown passes from Cody Kessler to a 56-28 romp over Colorado at the Coliseum. Kessler came out firing to a bevy of Trojan receivers and a pair of interceptions by Su’a Cravens and Kevon Seymour helped stake Troy to a 28-0 edge after the first quarter. Meanwhile, the Utes outlasted Oregon State, 29-23, in double overtime in Corvallis, Ore., on Thursday, Oct. 16. Utah running back Devontae Booker rushed for a 2014 conference single-game high of 229 yards. Two of his three touchdowns came in overtime.

Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (5-2 at USC, 39-31 career) is in his first season at USC after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as a USC assistant under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). In Salt Lake City, Utah headman Kyle Whittingham (81-40) is in 10th season leading the Utes. After going 9-18 in conference play during its first three seasons in the Pac-12, Utah is getting its first real look at the conference race thanks to a defense that’s leading the nation in sacks, stellar special teams play and Booker’s recent efforts.

Utah Offense

New offensive coordinator Dave Christensen (head coach, Wyoming, 2009-13) was expected to bring a fast-paced aerial attack to Salt Lake City. But halfway through the 2014 campaign, the Utes are a run-first football team playing at a fairly average pace (about 73 offensive plays per game) that doesn’t turn the ball over (five giveaways in 2014, fourth fewest in the nation). Utah ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, averaging 210.7 yards per game, but is next to last in passing offense, averaging 191.8 yards per game. And though Utah ranks ninth in the conference in total offense (402.5), the Utes are fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring (37.8). Junior Travis Wilson will get the start at quarterback. He’s 6-feet-7 with a strong arm and has started five of the previous six. He’s less of a threat with his legs than Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, who relieved him in the Utes win at UCLA on Oct. 4 and who started the Oregon State game before he was replaced. Both will see time, with Wilson (7 TDs, no INTs, 56.8 completion percentage) the more credible passer and Thompson (164 rushing yards, but two INTs to match two TD tosses) a much bigger threat with his legs.

The Utes have a solid trio of experienced wideouts. Junior Kenneth Scott leads the team with 22 grabs (three TDs) and is a reliable possession target. Senior Dres Anderson is Utah’s top downfield threat, averaging better than 17 yards per catch on 19 grabs with a team-leading four touchdown receptions. Classmate Kaelin Clay has come on in recent weeks out of the slot, starting the past four and notching 13 catches. Junior wideout Tim Patrick (eight catches) and senior tight end Westlee Tonga (nine catches, including one TD) are other key targets.

But in the past three weeks, the Utah offense has found its leader in junior running back (and JC transfer) Booker. After backing up classmate Bubba Poole during the first three games and watching him start the fourth game – Utah’s lone loss, to Washington State – the physical and fast Booker has been phenomenal. He’s carried for 742 yards (6.2 average per carry) and seven TDs in 2014 (while also catching 10 passes). But since replacing Poole against WSU, Booker has notched 178 yards rushing against the Cougars, 156 in the win at UCLA and the aforementioned 229 last week at Oregon State. Poole is still capable, but his opportunities have dwindled in Booker’s wake.

After streamlining in size and style during spring football, Utah’s offensive line has performed well in the rushing attack, but struggled at times with pass protection (the Utes have allowed 15 sacks). Three returning starters anchor the group – junior LT Jeremiah Poutasi (an honors candidate), senior LG Junior Salt and junior center Siaosi Aiono. On the right side of the line, a pair of sophomores has settled in, with Isaac Asiata – initially ticketed for a tackle spot – at right guard and J.J Dielman at right tackle.

Utah Defense

Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake is in his 10th year on Whittingham’s staff and sixth in his current role (he also coaches linebackers). Playing out of an attacking 4-3 set that includes intriguing interchangeability at the defensive end and outside linebacker spots, Utah ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (114.2 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (21.7 points per game). More impressively, Utah leads the nation with 33 sacks (5.5 per game), including an astounding 10-sack performance at UCLA. The Utes also have forced 11 turnovers (seven interceptions). Utah is physical in the secondary, one reason they rank sixth in the conference in passing yards allowed (264.8 per game) but a more impressive fourth in pass efficiency defense.

Senior defensive end Nate Orchard is on pace for an All-American season. He’s second in the conference (and nation) with 10.5 sacks (only Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha has more). He has 13 total tackles for loss among 39 stops and can also shift to linebacker in some schemes. At the other end, sophomore Hunter Dimick also has been outstanding. He has 5.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. A number of younger players have rotated in the inside spots, with two freshmen – tackle Lowell Lotulelei and nose tackle Filipo Mokofisi – atop the depth chart this week. Juniors Clint Shepard (three starts) and Viliseni Fauonuku (two starts) will also see time inside. This quartet has combined for 45 tackles (nine for loss) and four sacks.

Rover linebacker Jared Norris, a junior, leads the Utes with 58 tackles from what is nominally the weak side position. He has four sacks among 9.5 tackles for loss. On the strong side, junior Jason Fanaika tops the depth chart this week, though he also sees plenty of time at defensive end. He had a career-high 10 stops at Oregon State and has 22 total on the season (three sacks). Another hybrid linebacker/end, sophomore Pita Taumoepenu has 3.5 sacks in spot duty. Perhaps the best story in this group, though, is junior MLB Gionni Paul, who suffered an injury in spring ball and missed the season’s first two games. All he’s done in four starts since: 37 tackles, a team-leading three interceptions and a fumble recovery. He had 14 tackles each at Michigan and Oregon State.

The return of senior strong safety Brian Blechen and the move of senior Eric Rowe from free safety to cornerback have been crucial to the improvement of the Utah secondary. Blechen, who missed the 2013 season with knee problems, has been a stabilizing force with 28 tackles and one interception, while Rowe has been a leader, with 30 stops, six pass breakups and a pick. Sophomore Dominique Hatfield has stepped into the other corner spot, starting the last five, but senior Davion Orphey also sees time. Senior JC transfer Tevin Carter seized the free safety job in camp, but has been limited by injuries, missing the Oregon State game. He has two interceptions including a pick-six against UCLA. Freshman Andre Godfrey has started twice in his place, but is green. Sophomore Justin Thomas is the Utes’ top man at the nickel spot.

Utah Special Teams

Sophomore Andy Phillips handles the placekicking duties, making 13-of-15 field goals (his only misses are from 41 and 46 yards) and all 26 PATs. He also has 23 touchbacks on 40 kickoffs and opposing returners are averaging just 15.9 yards per opportunity. Junior punter Tom Hackett ranks first in the conference and third nationally at 47.1 yards per boot, and Utah ranks first nationally in net punting at 44.3 yards. Only nine of Utah’s 37 punts have been returned (for 23 total yards), while 18 have been downed inside the 20. Is that enough for you? No? Well good – because Clay has been astounding on kickoff and punt returns. He’s averaging 20.1 yards on punts, and has scored three times (against Idaho State, Michigan and Washington State). On kickoffs, he’s averaging 32.3 yards, including a 100-yard TD against Idaho State.

USC Offensive Gameplan

After Javorius “Buck” Allen’s stellar performance in Tucson two weeks ago and looking at Colorado’s struggles against the run, it figured that USC would rush for 213 yards against the Buffs last week. What didn’t figure was that those yards would be set up by – rather than set up – Kessler’s dominant performance in the passing attack. But after USC struggled to get the ball downfield in Arizona, Sarkisian doubled down on the plan against a young CU secondary and – after some pointed chatter in the media – Kessler turned in a record-setting performance. Not only that, but the Trojans also got more of the receiving corps involved than they had since the season opener against Fresno State, with Nelson Agholor snagging three TDs in a 128-yard performance, freshman Juju Smith catching a 15-yard TD as part of a 104-yard day, freshman tight end Bryce Dixon notching two scores, and redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell catching his first career TD pass.

But the Trojan offense struggled mightily in last season’s 19-3 win over Utah in L.A. Granted, it was the third game following the departure of Lane Kiffin and the Trojans were coming off a frustrating loss at Notre Dame the previous week. But USC’s rushing attack was severely limited, and the Trojans had trouble in the red zone, leading to a four-field-goal performance from Andre Heidari. It wasn’t until the following week that Allen finally made his big splash in the USC rushing attack and the Trojan offense turned a corner.

Utah is going to come hard after Kessler and will attempt to be physical with the Trojans’ receivers off the line. The Trojan offensive line must come up with its best performance of the season – and Allen will have to outperform his backfield counterparts of a season ago against the Utes. Third-down conversions will be important – a season ago, USC was three-of-15 on third down against Utah, but the Trojans are one of the nation’s better teams on third down in 2014 (converting 46.2 percent). Expect the Trojans to open up with a quick-hitting passing attack to try to minimize Utah’s pass rush and a simplified rushing attack looking to take advantage of the Utes’ aggressiveness off the edge. Allen’s receiving skills are likely to get a workout. If the Trojans can minimize the Utah pass rush, USC could see some opportunities downfield as the game goes on.

USC Defensive Gameplan

It’s tough to quantify the USC defense’s performance last week in a game the Trojans led 28-0 after a quarter and 49-14 midway through the third quarter. Early interceptions by Cravens and Seymour helped key the blowout and the Trojans held the Buffs to just 4.2 yards per play, even though CU ran 95 plays and controlled the ball for nearly 36 minutes. USC posted a season high in sacks (for a second straight week) with four, and inside linebacker Anthony Sarao continued to be an absolute iron man, playing nearly the entire contest and notching 12 tackles.

USC’s defense continues to get nicked up with injuries though – safety Gerald Bowman and linebacker Hayes Pullard have nursed injuries suffered against CU throughout practice this week. Both are expected to play, but with cornerback Adoree’ Jackson still struggling with hip issues, the Trojans’ back eight on defense is in a tenuous position.

This week, though, the game will be on the Trojans’ front four – and that’s a good thing as this group has grown immensely in recent weeks. Once seen as Leonard Williams, Antuan Woods and a bunch of guys, players like Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon and Greg Townsend have really come on. USC sacked Utah’s quarterbacks six times in 2013, and the Trojans will again need to get after Wilson. But the big target has to be Booker. Utah’s offense has revolved around him the past three weeks, but the Utes haven’t seen a collection a defensive front like USC’s in that span. Don't be surprised to see Thompson inserted at QB by the Utes if they struggle early. The running threat he brings could loosen things up for Booker.

The Pick

Prior to the season, the two-week road test the Trojans are walking into (Utah this week and at Washington State on Nov. 1) looked like a pair of possible trap games against so-so opponents in what could be questionable weather. While that remains true of next week’s trip, Saturday’s game has turned into a battle of ranked Pac-12 South squads in what promises to be a raucous atmosphere. Oh, and the weather should be perfect (upper 50s/low 60s and fair at kickoff).

This is the biggest conference home game the Utes have played since joining the Pac-12. USC can ill afford a start like the one they had here in on a Thursday night in 2012, where they trailed 14-0 before I could get the streaming feed of the game to load on my iPad in a Paris hotel room at 3 a.m. Putting Kessler and Co. in a position where they need to throw the football – and the Utes know they need to throw it – is a recipe for disaster in this one. Both teams have been hot starters – Utah is outscoring opponents 68-10 in the first quarter; USC is even better, 87-13. But the Trojans need to weather the storm in this one.

This game is going to come down to execution – and mistakes. USC’s offense must convert on third down. On the other side, the Trojan defense must get off the field on third down. The Trojan defense has been excellent at that this year, while Utah is converting only 33 percent of its third downs in its last four games. Both teams are among national leaders in turnover margin. Who blinks this week? Finally, the Trojans cannot allow Utah’s special teams to bite them with big plays. Take away Utah’s six special teams and defensive scores and its scoring average drops by a full touchdown. If USC keeps its wits, gets a solid performance from its emerging defensive line, and can get a big play or two from Kessler and Allen, the Trojans have enough to emerge with a big road win.

USC 24, Utah 19

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).



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