Kyle Whittingham brings his steady, capable No. 3 Utes to the Coliseum to face the Jekyll-and-Hyde Trojans.
The USC Trojans (3-3, 1-2 in the Pac-12) return to Pac-12 Conference play to face the undefeated Utah Utes (6-0, 3-0), ranked No. 3 by the Associated Press and No. 7 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, on Saturday, October 24, at 4:30 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national FOX television audience. It’s the 14th meeting between the Trojans and Utes, with USC holding a 9-4 margin in the series. The Trojans won the first three meetings after Utah joined the Pac-12 before suffering a 24-21 defeat in Salt Lake City in 2014. Ute quarterback Travis Wilson found receiver Kaelin Clay for a touchdown with eight seconds to play to seal the win. The Trojans won the previous meeting in Los Angeles, 19-3, in 2013.
Last Saturday, the Trojans fought back from an early 24-10 deficit to carry a 31-24 lead into the fourth quarter of an eventual 41-31 loss to rival Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. USC looked out of sorts before a trick-play touchdown pass and another long scoring play from Adoree’ Jackson sent them into the half tied at 24. But the Irish wore down USC, scoring 17 unanswered points in the final stanza. Meanwhile, behind two Devontae Booker touchdown runs, Utah scored the game’s final 20 points in a 34-18 victory over Arizona State in Salt Lake City. The opportunistic Ute defense forced two Sun Devil turnovers and notched five sacks.
USC interim head coach Clay Helton (1-1 at USC, including a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State) leads the Trojans at home for the first time since replacing the fired Steve Sarkisian on Oct. 9. A third game as an interim coach is a far cry from the lengthy run of 11th-year Utah headman Kyle Whittingham (91-43), who is among those rotating through the rumor mill of prospective 2016 USC coaches. After going 9-18 against Pac-12 competition in its first three seasons as a conference member, Utah seems to have found its footing under Whittingham’s steady hand, winning eight of its past 12 conference games and shooting up the rankings after a huge road win at Oregon on Sept. 26.Utah Offense
The Utah offensive coordinator position has been a revolving door in recent years. That didn’t change much this offseason as 2014 OC Dave Christensen left for Texas A&M. The job is now shared by Aaron Roderick (who is also the QB coach) and Jim Harding (who handles the offensive line, as well). Roderick is a long-time staffer who called plays for the Utes for a season-and-a-half in 2009-10, so there is some consistency. And, statistically, Utah’s offense is rather similar to 2014, averaging 396.3 yards per game (10th in the Pac-12) after totaling about 388 yards per game in 2014. The Utes love to run the football right at you out of their single-back, three-wide formations and they take good care of the football – Utah has committed just seven turnovers in 2015, ranks fifth nationally in fourth-down conversions (10-of-11, 90.9 percent), sixth nationally in the red zone (scoring on 23-of-24 opportunities) and completion percentage (69.7 percent), and seventh nationally in time of possession. Senior QB Wilson has thrown for 980 yards in five games, with seven TD passes and just three interceptions. He’s also rushed for 4.5 yards per carry and has scored three times on the ground. The Utes do have a seasoned backup in senior Kendal Thompson, who filled in capably for the injured Wilson at Fresno State in September.
Senior Kenneth Scott began 2015 as the Utes’ only experienced receiving target, but he’s been joined by a youthful mix of options. Scott ranks third on the team with 21 grabs for an average of 13 yards per catch, with two TDs. Freshman Britain Covey and converted running back Bubba Poole have been solid while splitting time in the slot – Covey is averaging 9.8 yards on 22 grabs (with two scores), while Poole has 10 catches for an average of 6.4 yards. Another freshman, Tyrone Smith, starts opposite Scott and has 12 catches. Junior tight end Siale Fakailoatonga suffered a season-ending injury against ASU. He had 12 catches on the season and will be replaced by sophomore Harrison Handley (nine catches, 7.7 yards per, two TDs) in the starting lineup.
Unsurprisingly, though, Booker powers the Utah offense. Not only is the returning All-Pac-12 first-teamer averaging 130.5 rushing yards per game (third in the Pac-12; No. 10 nationally) and 4.9 yards per carry, but the senior’s eight rushing TDs also rank second in the conference. He’s also Utah’s leading receiver, with 23 catches (9.0 yards per catch). Booker’s skills and toughness have left reserve running back Joe Williams, a JC transfer, with just 11 carries through six games.
The Utes’ offensive line lost Jeremiah Poutasi a year early to the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, but this group has moved forward with few hiccups – actually improving in pass protection, with its seven sacks allowed tied for the fewest in the Pac-12. With a solid trio of returning starters – senior center Siaosi Aiono, junior left guard Isaac Asiata, and junior right tackle J.J Dielman – the Utes have plugged a pair of effective juniors into the other spots. Sam Tevi has been solid in replacing Poutasi at left tackle, while Hiva Lutui (cousin of former USC OL Deuce Lutui) took over the starting spot at right guard from sophomore Salesi Uhatafe a week ago.Utah Defense
The departure of 10-year assistant and six-year defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake to Oregon State definitely turned some heads around the conference. Whittingham’s choice of a replacement – John Pease, who also handles the defensive line – also was a surprise, since Pease was four years into his second retirement from coaching. However, defense has been the hallmark of the Whittingham Era in Salt Lake City and the coordinator change (plus the losses of two top players: defensive end Nate Orchard and cornerback Eric Rowe) did little to change that. Playing out of their aggressive 4-3 set, the Utes top the conference in rushing defense (113.5 yards per game) and rank in the Pac-12’s top three in pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense – allowing only 19.5 points per game. Utah also leads the country in interceptions (13) and ranks second nationally in turnover margin (+2.0) and takeaways (19). The Utes sack activity has dropped off – just 16 in 6 games after a nation-leading 55 in 2014 – but Utah’s opportunistic ways have made up for a pass defense that’s allowed 256 yards per game – 11th in the conference and No. 100 nationally.
As usual, Utah’s defensive ends come at you in waves and are trusted to get the bulk of the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Junior Hunter Dimick is the lone returning starter at end. He missed the Fresno State and Oregon games, but has started the other four, with four tackles for loss among nine stops. Senior Jason Fanaika (23 tackles, four for loss, 2.5 sacks) will start at the other end, but keep an eye on pass-rush specialist Pita Taumoepenu. The junior has a team-leading six sacks. Junior Kylie Fitts (2.5 sacks, 15 tackles) is also a factor. At the tackle spots, sophomores Lowell Lotulelei (11 stops) and Filipo Mokofisi (13 tackles, 2.5 sacks) key the Ute run defense, with senior Viliseni Fauonuku (14 stops, 2.5 for loss) the key reserve.
Middle linebacker Jared Norris and rover LB Gionni Paul, both seniors, are the heart of the Utah defense. Norris is following up 2014’s 116-tackle campaign with another stellar year – 48 tackles and a sack, while Paul – a transfer from Miami whose productivity was stalled by injuries a year ago – has been a key playmaker. Paul leads Utah with 50 tackles, and has two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Classmate Jason Whittingham, nephew of the head coach, starts at the “stud” linebacker spot and has 11 tackles – but is often replaced when the Utes go to the nickel.
Junior cornerback Dominique Hatfield has snatched three interceptions, while making 10 tackles in five games (four starts). Junior corners Reginald Porter (22 tackles) and Cory Butler-Byrd (18 tackles, two interceptions by the JC transfer who has a 54-yard TD catch in spot duty at receiver) have performed well, while classmate Justin Thomas (18 tackles, two interceptions, including a pick-six vs. Michigan) has continued stellar play at the nickel. At strong safety, senior Tevin Carter (who earned an extra year of eligibility after an injury cut his season short in 2014) has impressed with 32 tackles, while sophomore free safety Marcus Williams has 29 tackles – and a team-leading four picks.Utah Special Teams
Junior Andy Phillips has made 10-of-13 field goals (and missing only once since the opener) and all 27 PATs. He is just three-of-six from outside 40 yards. One concern: opponents are averaging 23.6 yards per kickoff return (Phillips has just 14 touchbacks in 43 tries). Senior punter Tom Hackett, the 2014 Ray Guy Award winner and consensus All-American, averages 48 yards per boot, first in the Pac-12 and third nationally. He has 10 punts of 50 or more yards this season and has placed 13 punts inside the 20. The Utes also rank 10th in the nation in punt returns (17.6 yards per attempt), thanks to Covey. He’s third in the conference – and on the only punt he didn’t return this season, sophomore defensive back Boobie Hobbs scored on a 69-yard TD against Oregon. Overall, Utah has two punt returns and a kickoff return (by Butler-Byrd against Fresno State) for TDs.USC Offensive Gameplan
How do you gain 590 yards — 440 passing — over 77 plays and hold a time-of-possession advantage, yet score just 31 points, including zero in the fourth quarter? The answer is simple: mistakes. We’re talking about penalties, missed field goals, third-down inefficiency, and – finally – turnovers. The Trojans’ speed and athleticism advantage over the Notre Dame defense – while less stunning than it might have been during the past decade – is still there. But when the Irish weren’t chasing after a sprinting Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, or Ronald Jones, they often relied on the Trojans to stop themselves.
Certainly, perfection cannot be expected following the tumult of the preceding week. But these types of mistakes have been the bane of USC’s offense for far longer than one week. Certainly, injuries to the Trojan receiving corps and center Max Tuerk hampered Cody Kessler’s effectiveness – and it doesn’t appear that USC’s wideouts will enter Saturday’s contest any healthier, while the offensive line also will be without starting left tackle Chad Wheeler, who reported concussion-like symptoms on Sunday.
Utah’s defensive goals are no secret: stop the run, pressure the quarterback, and take the ball away. They do this with an attack that, quite simply, relies on their players to get off the ball faster than their offensive counterparts. Certainly, the Utes do bring additional rushers, but the key to their defense is the front four winning its personal battles and allowing the linebackers to make plays. Can USC’s offensive line, which has struggled to protect Kessler even at its healthiest in 2015, stand up to that challenge? USC’s best bet is to try to move Kessler around and use Smith-Schuster and Jackson to try to loosen up the middle of the Utah defense. Running the football is going to be a tough task. But the Trojans cannot simply give up on it – Jones is a home run hitter and if he gets a couple of good swings, he could make a game-changing play.USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan defense appeared unfocused and overwhelmed – both early and late – against the Irish. Save for Jackson’s forced fumble at the goal line and holding the Irish to a field goal on ND’s next possession, USC played poorly enough in the first quarter-and-a-half to give up more than the 24 points they did. After stabilizing through the third quarter, USC spent much of the fourth quarter giving up big chunks of yardage to the Irish, while failing to make key stops on third down, and also committing key penalties.
Again, given the upheaval around the program, it’s not totally unexpected that the Trojans might struggle mentally in the first game after Sarkisian’s firing. However, much like the offense, what happened against the Irish didn’t feel totally out of character. It seemed more like a magnification of the issues USC has been unable to overcome since Justin Wilcox took over as defensive coordinator in 2014.
USC players and coaches have spoken at length this week about how important the defense will be against Utah – particularly the defense’s physicality. The Utes are going to run it right at the Trojans, and Booker may be the best back they’ve seen in 2015. Add in Wilson’s running capability, and one would be shocked if the Utes went to the air early and often. Can a USC’s front seven, which is responsible for allowing 181.5 yards rushing per game since the beginning of Pac-12 play, make a stand? The Trojans are right – this game will come down to how they answer that question. If they fail, not only will Booker have a huge evening, but the Utes will use players like Scott and Covey to make a couple of big plays in the passing game.The Pick
The more I think about it, the more shocked I am that USC is a 3.5-point favorite over the Utes. Yes, I understand the Trojans have the talent advantage (as usual). And, yes, USC hasn’t lost to Utah in L.A. in almost 100 years (I just wanted to take my crack at one of the most meaningless numbers being bandied about this week). But the reality is that a Trojan victory in this game – while certainly possible – would be a much bigger upset than a win last weekend would have been.
The reason for this: Utah’s steadiness. The Utes are a strikingly consistent football team. Utah has allowed between 17 and 24 points in every game this season. They have committed the fewest penalties in the conference (fourth-best nationally). They take the ball away more than they give it away at almost a 3:1 ratio so far in 2015. Honestly, though anything is possible, expecting the Utes to suddenly break down on Saturday simply isn’t informed.
Can USC match the Utes move for move and avoid the mistakes that, as noted above, have become a hallmark of Trojan football in recent years? If they do, then the Trojans’ talent edge gives them a chance to score an upset. But would you bet on USC suddenly becoming a penalty-free, turnover-free, third-down conversion machine on offense – or a penalty-free, tackle-finishing, takeaway powerhouse on defense? People might think Utah’s slow-and-steady persona is risky against the Trojans’ talent – and, with better coaching and more consistent messaging on the USC sideline, they might be right. At this point, though, it’s hard to see how slow-and-steady doesn’t win this race.
Utah 35, USC 20
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)