Numbers don't lie . . . do they?

Steve Sarkisian and the Trojans will find out how important stats matter -- or is it players making plays. Saturday night in Salt Lake City we'll find out.

Never let it be said there's only one way to get somewhere. Take Saturday night's Pac-12 South showdown in Salt Lake City. Sure, both teams have lost just one Pac-12 game.

But the 19th-ranked Utes (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) and the 20th-ranked Trojans (5-2, 4-1) have traveled far different paths to get here together, ranked right behind one another as they are.

Numbers don't lie but numbers don't exactly paint a picture you can figure out because they're just so disconnected. For example, just take the talent levels.

One team, USC, despite its NCAA limitations, has recruited 21 Scout.com Top 100 players the last four years, 10 five-stars and 40 four-stars with an average national recruiting class of No. 13.

The other team, Utah, has recruited exactly zero Top 100 players and zero five-stars and just six four-stars over the last four years. The Utes' average out at No 48 recruiting class in that time.

And yet here they are. Doing lots of things right, even if we can't figure out exactly how.

USC, for example, has one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the nation, Cody Kessler, coming off a record-setting seven-touchdown-passing game last Saturday that has him among the national leaders in completion percentage (69.5) and .

Utah, on the other hand, has two quarterbacks who have the Utes 11th in the Pac-12 and 99th in the NCAA in pass offense, almost 80 yards a game behind USC's 273.4-yard average.

How they are where they are is pretty much inexplicable on the surface when Utah has a problem with what Steve Sarkisian, a quarterback himself, described as "the most important position in all of sports."

Well, they make up for it in ways so different from the way USC does it -- except for running the football -- that it's almost like they're playing a different sport. And maybe they are.

Sark says that's just the way it is in the Pac-12. Every week you play somebody doing things differently. "Look at Arizona," he said of the Wildcats' 3-3-5 defense. It's just what you do in this league.

No mirror-images here unless you're talking about one of those distorted funhouse mirrors that exaggerate one feature, downplay another. As do these teams.

They both run the ball well with the Pac-12's top 1-2 individual running backs -- USC's Buck Allen at 129.9 yards a game and Utah's Devontae Booker at 123.7. That's it.

But Utah really gets it done with special teams, handled by head coach Kyle Whittingham, and by getting to the quarterback, two places USC doesn't have much of a profile.

But Utah isn't just good at special teams, they're really good. The Utes put "special" into special teams, leading the nation in net punting (44.27 yards) behind the nation's best punter, Tom Hackett, whose 47.1 average leads the Pac-12, allowing just nine of his 37 punts to be returned and for a total of just 23 yards.

The Utes are 106 spots ahead of USC in defending against punt returns, holding opponents to 2.56 yards each while USC gives up 13.3 per. As one Utah fan posted this week, "It's bizarro world, where we're good, they're bad and vice versa."

That's because on the flip side, Utah has the only player in the nation with four return touchdowns, Kaelin Clay, who has three punt return TDs and a 100-yard kickoff return TD. His 20.1 yards a punt return more than doubles Nelson Agholor's. The good news on kickoff returns is that Kaelin's 27.8-yard average, much above USC's 18.7 team average, is not that much ahead of Adoree Jackson's 27.1 -- and the freshman says he's planning to go as a return man Saturday.

But on kickoff returns, the split is just 105 spots as the No. 3 Utes nationally average 27.8 to the No. 108 Trojans' 18.7. Not a pretty picture here.

Then there's field goal kicking. Again, Utah has one of the nation's best in Andy Phillips who has hit more field goals from 40 yards out (nine of 11) than USC's Andre Heidari has made all season (six of eight) although Heidari has hit both of his plus-50-yarders including a long of 53 yards. Phillips, with 10.8 points a game, is sixth in the nation in scoring although Heidari is at a respectable 7.8.

Not to fear, Sark said this week when asked about USC's special teams coach and would he consider a full-time one. "We have one," Sark said of Johnny Nansen, also the running backs coach who gets input from everybody on the staff. As he'll need to this week.

"We've got good coaches," Sark said of the emphasis this week on special teams. "I feel good about our preparation."

For Utah's head man Whittingham, who took over Utah's special teams this year, it's carrying on something Urban Meyer started when he was Utah's head coach. And something Frank Beamer has done so well his whole career at Virginia Tech.

"I think it's a little bit easier to do later in your career when you've got things settled," Sark said of a head coach taking on those duties.

One thing USC will need to get settled is protecting Kessler. USC has allowed 16 sacks, eighth in the Pac-12, and 57 tackles for losses, second-worst in the Pac-12, against a team that lives on those stats with 62 tackles for loss (an average of 10.2 a game) and 5.5 sacks a game, both best in the nation.

USC meanwhile, has surprisingy recorded a mere 15 sacks, just over two a game, and 62 spots behind the nation-leading Utes.

Now for the analysis. Stats aren't the final story here. Maybe if teams had played exactly the same schedules but they've had only two common opponents.

Both clobbered Fresno State but USC's 35-10 win over Oregon State was much more impressive than Utah's double-overtime thriller. Both teams have home losses they'd rather not be reminded of but again, Utah's loss to Washington State looks worse than USC's Hail Mary fail to Arizona State.

So where does that leave us? USC has better players. Utah is probably better coached and more of a finished product right now. USC has started six freshmen, Utah just two -- a sign of USC's numbers issues and recruiting talent.

So where does that leave us? Where football often does. It leaves us where it should leave us. It won't be the "Blackout" that decides this game. Or the sold-out home crowd. Or the altitude. Or the weather. Or the stats.

The team with the players who make the most plays will win this one. It's really that simple.

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


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