USC – and its coaching staff – face an undeniable crossroad on Friday night in Salt Lake City. Which way will it turn?
The USC Trojans (1-2, 0-1 in the Pac-12) travel to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Utes (3-0), ranked No. 23 in the USA Today poll and No. 24 by the Associated Press (AP), on Friday, Sept. 23, at 6 p.m. PDT at Rice-Eccles Stadium and in front of a national Fox Sports 1 cable television audience. It’s the 15th meeting between the Trojans and Utes, with USC holding a 10-4 margin in the series. The teams have split the past two meetings (after Trojans won the first three meetings against Utah as a Pac-12 foe from 2011-13) – Utah winning 24-21 in Salt Lake City in 2014, and USC toppling the then-No. 3. Utes, 42-24, at the Coliseum last October.
Last Saturday, the Trojans stumbled through a 27-10 loss at No. 7 Stanford. The problems included: six false start penalties; lining up with only eight players (apparently more than once) on special teams; and odd decisions to avoid an easy field goal opportunity on one fourth down and to punt on another when the game still seemed in doubt early in the fourth quarter. Of course, Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey had plenty to say about the outcome, as well, rushing for 172 yards and one score while also catching a 56-yard TD pass. Expectedly, the Utes fared much better on their Bay Area trip, rolling to a 34-17 victory at San Jose State. Utah rushed for 248 yards thanks to an emerging trio of running backs while its defense notched a 2016 national single-game-high 10 sacks.
USC Coach Clay Helton (7-6 at USC in parts of three seasons) is still looking for his first win over a Power 5 foe since signing a five-year contract on Nov. 30. Meanwhile, 12th-year Utah headman Kyle Whittingham (98-46) continues to produce one competitive team after another. Though Utah had some question marks entering the season at linebacker, its defense has been as disruptive as ever. However, the Ute offense continues to be an enigma that is seeking the kind of consistency necessary to lift Utah from threat to favorite in the Pac-12 South.Utah Offense
Utah returns both of its co-offensive coordinators: Aaron Roderick (who is also the QB coach) and Jim Harding (who handles the offensive line, as well). Statistically, Utah is a middle-of-the-Pac offense: 418.3 yards per game (ninth in the Pac-12), 169.3 rushing (sixth), and 249.0 passing (eighth). The Utes’ problem has been turnovers. Utah has fumbled nine times, losing five, and tossed four interceptions. Those miscues have left the Utes averaging just 26 points per game (second worst in the conference, ahead of – you guessed it – USC). Troy Williams, a JC transfer who started his career at Washington, has taken hold of the starting quarterback job. He’s the perfect symbol of both the Utes’ potential and their problems. The athletic Williams is completing 62.8 percent of his passes and has thrown for four touchdowns. He’s also completed five passes of 45 yards or longer. However, he’s thrown four interceptions, while being sacked five times.
Six-foot-five senior Tim Patrick has battled injuries throughout his career, but – for three games, at least – has become the big-league target Utah’s been seeking. Patrick leads Utah with 14 catches, 285 yards, a 20.4 yards-per-catch average, and has caught all four of Williams TD tosses. Sophomore Raelon Singleton is averaging 19.8 yards on five catches. Classmate Tyrone Smith had five catches for 91 yards in the first two games before missing last weekend’s game. The Utes got a boost against San Jose State as previously suspended senior Cory Butler-Byrd returned to action in the slot, grabbing five passes for 66 yards. He’s listed as a starter this week. At tight end, senior Evan Moeai (six catches) is the most effective pass catcher, but junior Harrison Handley is also capable.
Senior running back Joe Williams – the staff’s first choice to replace NFL draftee Devontae Booker – retired from football after struggling in the Utes’ first two games. For now, three inexperienced runners are splitting time: shifty junior Troy McCormick (179 yards, 6.1 average, with two TDs; also six catches for 73 yards); burly sophomore Armand Shyne (5.6 yards per carry on 20 attempts); and intriguing freshman Zack Moss (6.4 yards per carry on 24 tries). Moss didn’t play in the season opener, but started last week. His physical style makes him the leader among those gambling on who will eventually win the job.
The Utes’ offensive line is built upon a solid group of returning starters – senior left guard Isaac Asiata, senior center (and former tackle) J.J Dielman, and junior right guard Salesi Uhatafe. Senior right tackle Sam Tevi missed the San Jose State game with a back injury but is atop the depth chart for Friday – if he’s limited look for sophomore Jackson Barton, who’s played in all three, to start in his stead once again. Highly rated JC transfer Garett Bolles has a stranglehold on the left tackle spot.Utah Defense
Long-time defensive coordinator John Pease, who’d returned to Utah in 2015 after four years of retirement, retired once again in the offseason. Whittingham named safeties coach Morgan Scalley as the new coordinator. What has this turnover wrought? It’s been more of the same outstanding defense. Playing with four down linemen, Utah opts for a nickel back over a third linebacker more than 75 percent of the time. The Utes are in the Pac-12’s top three in passing, total, and scoring defense (fifth against the run) thanks to an attacking style that forces mistakes. Utah’s 15 sacks rank second nationally and top the conference. The Utes’ eight takeaways (six interceptions) rank sixth nationally (No. 1, Pac-12).
Even a season-ending knee injury to returning sack leader Kylie Fitts vs. BYU hasn’t slowed the Utah defensive line. Senior end Hunter Dimick, who battled injuries for much of 2015, has returned with a vengeance. He has a team-leading three sacks among nine stops. Junior All-America candidate Lowell Lotulelei (seven tackles, two for loss) holds down one tackle spot, while classmate Filipo Mokofisi (nine tackles, two sacks) has split time at tackle and end since Fitts’ injury. When he slides outside, senior Pasoni Tasini has impressed at tackle (10 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Senior pass-rush specialist Pita Taumoepenu counts two sacks among his 11 tackles.
Losing linebackers Jared Norris and Gionni Paul meant Utah not only had to replace 204 total tackles, but also experienced leadership. So far sophomore Cody Barton and junior Sunia Tauteoli have been up to the task. Barton, who plays the rover spot that Paul patrolled, leads the team with 22 tackles (2.5 for loss). Tauteoli is right behind him with 21 stops in the middle. He also has two interceptions, including a 41-yard pick-six against BYU. JC transfer Kavika Luafatasaga will also see time.
Senior cornerback Dominique Hatfield (he was on the receiving end of 2015’s much-replayed JuJu Smith-Schuster stiff arm) is atop the depth chart at one corner, though he’s missed the first three with a leg injury. However, senior Reginald Porter (13 tackles, two interceptions) has performed well in his stead, as has classmate Brian Allen (11 tackles, one sack). Reliable senior nickel back Justin Thomas is a four-year starter (10 tackles, one sack). Sophomore strong safety Chase Hansen is the unit’s least experienced player – but with 13 tackles, he’s learning quickly. Junior free safety Marcus Williams was first-team All-Pac-12 in 2015 and he’s on track for a repeat performance: 16 tackles, two INTs, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery.Utah Special Teams
Senior kicker Andy Phillips continues to be one of the Pac-12’s top performers. He’s made five-of-six field goal attempts and all nine PATs. Redshirt freshman Hayes Hicken handles kickoffs and has eight touchbacks in 17 tries, helping the Utes’ solid kick return defense. Many expected Utah’s punting to take a step back after losing all-everything punter Tom Hackett, but sophomore Mitch Wishnowsky is averaging a nation-leading 52.6 yards on 14 punts. Junior Boobie Hobbs once again serves as punt returner (8.2 yards per on 13 tries). Butler-Byrd and junior Kenric Young are expected to take over kick return duties after the Utes struggled during the first three games.USC Offensive Gameplan
By some statistical measures, the Trojan offense at Stanford was as efficient as its been in 2016. Among USC’s season bests were its 4.5 yards-per-carry rushing and its 5.8 yards-per-play total offense. However, given the game’s slower tempo, USC’s mistakes absolutely decimated the offense’s productivity on the scoreboard. Six false start penalties – five in the first half – killed one opportunity after the next. In the second half, after an impressive opening drive for the Trojans’ only touchdown, USC’s “gumbo” scheme became disjointed. Then, there were those two befuddling fourth-quarter decisions.
First, USC faced fourth down at the Stanford 18 with 14 minutes to play, trailing by 17. A relatively easy 35-yard field goal would move USC within two scores with nearly a full quarter to play. A three-score deficit that late is nearly impossible to overcome. Getting within two scores was USC’s only hope. It’s rather simple math, honestly. Instead, Ronald Jones II was stuffed on a run play. Five minutes later, USC faced fourth-and-six on the Stanford 44. After disdaining the field goal on the previous possession, USC had to score on this drive to have any hope of coming back. However, Helton and Co. chose to punt to the Pac-12’s best ball-control offense with nine minutes to play.
Confusing? Yes. Infuriating? Absolutely. Depleting a shallow reservoir of confidence in the staff? No doubt. This week, the staff did itself no further favors to those who see it as immature and lacking direction: the move to replace Max Browne with Sam Darnold as the starting quarterback reeks of desperation to many. In fact, as Shotgun Spratling pointed out in his weekly participation chart story USC’s offense ran more efficiently on the Farm under Browne’s direction. The idea of a fresh start and a spark aren’t the worst sometimes, but given the recent issues, there’s no way this change at this time is going to project well to those outside the walls of the McKay Center.
Perhaps Helton and Tee Martin see Utah’s attacking defense as ripe for the kind of escapability Darnold brings to the field? The Ute defense is predicated on a front four tasked with owning the line of scrimmage and getting the bulk of the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. USC’s offensive line – which when it wasn’t committing false starts played fairly well – faces another stiff challenge. If it can clean up the penalties – something that could be tough to do at Rice-Eccles – and keep Darnold vertical, the Trojans can do some damage against Utah’s back seven. Expect USC to try to get Jones and Justin Davis going in the ground game early to take some heat off of Darnold. Also, it’s likely we’ll see Darnold on the move via designed rolls and (Maybe? Hopefully?) zone-read runs. But the biggest key might be: will the redshirt freshman making his first start get rattled by a buzzing defense and loud crowd? If he does, Utah will make him pay.USC Defensive Gameplan
Two big plays foiled the Trojan defense’s effort against the Cardinal – McCaffrey’s 56-yard first quarter TD catch and Michael Rector’s 56-yard TD run on a reverse in the third quarter. The first gave Stanford an early lead it would never relinquish. The second put the Cardinal up by 17 points and was the game’s coup de grace. Those plays allowed Stanford to limit quarterback Ryan Burns to just 14 passes on the day, minimizing his opportunity for mistakes, while also helping set a tone that allowed the Cardinal to rush for 302 yards at a clip of 6.3 yards-per-carry. Those two flashes of lightning also allowed Stanford to do what it does best – control the ball for 34 minutes.
Outside of the two big plays, though, the defense performed well enough – allowing the Cardinal just one sustained drive for a TD, and keeping them within striking distance in the fourth quarter (if not for those interesting coaching decisions). USC’s personnel groups are becoming more defined each week, and key players like Cameron Smith, Uchenna Nwosu, and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu are putting in yeoman’s work.
This week, the Trojans know the task – especially given the Utes’ predilection to committing turnovers: stop the run. Yes, Utah’s trio of running backs is young and inexperienced. But the Utes aren’t going to change who they are overnight. Whittingham teams want to run that football – and then take big shots downfield once you’re pulled in. As noted above, Utah’s had success with big passing plays this year – and adding Butler-Byrd to the mix only makes them more dangerous. The Trojans must slow the run, avoid giving up those lightning-bolt plays, and do what the Utes previous opponents this season have done: force turnovers.The Pick
A lot of friends and family ask me if writing these game previews ever becomes a grind during the season. The answer: rarely. I was lucky to start writing these in 2000, the year before Pete Carroll’s arrival. Then, for a much younger version of me, they served as more of an outlet for the frustration of watching a Paul Hackett-coached team every week. Of course, by the latter stages of 2002 and through most of the rest of the decade, there was great joy and excitement each week. And, even through the lowest points of USC’s sanctions era, the Trojans’ resilience as a team gave one more hope than despair.
I hope that I am wrong, but right now, it feels like we’re heading toward the territory of those year 2000 previews. Certainly, the Trojans are only three games into the schedule with a new coaching staff, and a more manageable October schedule awaits USC. But the problems that surfaced in USC’s two losses this month feel – for some reason – deeper than just personnel issues or inexperienced coaching decisions. Players talking about the feeling of already having lost in the halftime locker room – twice in three weeks? That is suboptimal, to put it mildly.
Could USC pull a 180 this week in a hostile environment (and likely bad weather) against a ranked Utah team? Based strictly on personnel, they most certainly could – maybe even should. This Utah team, while 3-0, is mistake-prone on offense. Its defense – though impressive so far – hasn’t faced what anyone would consider a decent offense yet this season. It is eminently beatable – and eminently capable of beating itself. Of course, you place the weight of that sentence squarely on USC, as well. The Trojan players are – on the whole – a solid group of student-athletes with a lot of talent and a big desire to win. Can the coaching staff give them the kind of leadership they need to do just that – win? Based on what we’ve seen in 2016, would you bet on it? I’d be stunned if this game is anything but an ugly grind. The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win it.
Utah 20, USC 16
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 16 years. The editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry, he graduated 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)