Utah: 5 Questions Answered

In Part 2 of our information exchange with the Ute Zone, Publisher Dan Sorensen answers our questions about the Utes coming into the USC game Friday night.

Among other things, Ute Zone publisher Dan Sorensen makes it clear, Friday night's game at RIce-Eccles Stadium will not be easy going for USC.

1) How much of a factor will last year's game be Friday night? How much has that game stayed with the Utes after what it did to their season? Is this a revenge game? And if it is, is that a good or a bad thing?

"I personally don't think last year's game will factor too much into Utah's approach this year. Sure, Utah coaches will remind the team that they got their butts handed to them last year. And the large contingent of Southern California players on Utah's roster want to beat USC at all costs. But on a certain level, everybody wants to beat USC regardless of previous outcomes. This game is more about Utah wanting to finally win a division title outright than getting revenge on what happened last year. They know that they'll need to beat both USC and UCLA to get that title, and Friday is the first step." 

2) Will the return of Stevie T. matter? He has such a great attitude and seems to have maintained a close relationship with his former teammates and has such good things to say about them and the Utah program, is there any sense of getting back at him for abandoning the Utes for USC?

"Not really. The media has played up Stevie's return, because it adds a curiosity that isn't around most years. Stevie was well liked by his teammates when he was at Utah. And he'll probably be well liked by his ex-teammates when the game is over. That doesn't mean they'll take it easy on him. Of course, they'll want to hand him a loss in his return, and there will be more than a few players that will want to punish him for going to play for a conference rival. There's been a lot of talk about how Stevie has given his teammates scouting reports of Utah's weaknesses, but frankly any half-decent coach would be able to pick that stuff up by watching film anyway so the only real advantage USC is getting is that he's a solid defensive lineman. His transfer doesn't change the fact that he would have been the 4th best defensive tackle at Utah this year had he stayed. It's an interesting side story, but I don't think the game will hinge on that matchup. The matchup between Dominique Hatfield and Juju Smith-Schuster is much more interesting from a football perspective, and will have much more of an impact on the game. 

3) As much as USC's early overscheduling has clearly been a problem for the Trojans, do you think Utah's easing into the year without a Power Five opponent will play into this game? How good is this team? The lone win over a non-lower-tier program against BYU was something of a gift with BYU going for two at the finish and failing. So how ready are the Utes?

"The schedule has definitely been a little wanting, with FCS opponent Southern Utah in the opener and games against BYU and San Jose State to follow. The BYU game is a bit of an anomaly. It's as fierce a rivalry as you'll see in the country, and strange things tend to happen in that game. This year was no different. Utah played terribly on offense and turned the ball over six times, yet still won. Then the Utes played a gimme road game at SJSU that wasn't much of a test at all. In some ways, the lighter schedule has been beneficial for Utah. They've had a chance to break in a new quarterback and get him game experience before conference season starts with the idea that the game should slow down for him as the season progresses. But you're correct in saying that the Utes haven't been truly tested. Because of the schedule we really don't know how good this Utah team is. We know the defense is outstanding, but that's an expectation every year at this point. Solid defense and special teams is a hallmark of Utah football. The offense has shown promise, but they have the nasty habit of turning the ball over and not finishing drives. If that gets fixed, Utah is absolutely a contender to win the Pac-12 South. If it doesn't, then the Utes are probably staring down the barrel of a 7-5 season with another Las Vegas Bowl appearance. This is easily the biggest game of the season thus far for the Utes, and I expect they'll treat it as such. This USC team looks hungry for a win, so Utah better be ready." 

4) As much as Utah's game-turning turnovers factored in a year ago at the Coliseum, has that problem been solved with Utah's new leaders on offense? Or could it still be an issue Friday in weather that could make things a bit slippery? How does the potential of wet weather play out here as well?     

"Turnovers have been Utah's Achilles' heel this season. They've turned the ball over 11 times in three games, which is unacceptable regardless of your opponent. To compound matters, seven of those turnovers have been fumbles, so you can't exactly blame it on a new quarterback learning the system. I expect turnovers to be the biggest deciding factor of the game on Friday. If the Utes can hang on to the football, they have a good shot to win, especially if the weather turns especially nasty. Utah's defensive line will be hard to run against and sloppy weather will make it hard for both offenses. The winner of the turnover margin battle will most likely win the game." 

5) Finally, the USC coaches and Stevie T. have made much of how the Rice-Eccles crowd will be a factor here. Will it be? How does that happen in a relatively small, not all that much of an enclosed stadium where the sound escapes unlike at Oregon where the fans are right on top of you and the sound stays inside?

"They're not wrong. Rice-Eccles stadium has become one of the more intimidating places to play in the Pac-12. Never mind the 47,000-seat capacity, the place can get loud. Utah has arguably the loudest and most intense student section in the conference in the MUSS, and they feel it's their duty to help cause opposing teams' false start penalties. Combine that with the elevation, colder temperatures, and the potential for wet weather, and it will be a challenge for the Trojans to adjust -- especially with a quarterback making his first college start. Rice-Eccles stadium will be packed rain or shine, and the fans take pride in being among the loudest and most intense in the conference. This game will also be Utah's annual blackout game, which should add to the atmosphere."

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

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