Utah at USC - Game Preview

The Utah Utes travel to Southern California for the inaugural PAC-12 conference game.

Facts and Factors:
Utah (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) plays USC (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) in the inaugural Pac-12 Conference game on Saturday, Sept. 10 in Los Angeles. Kickoff is 4:30 p.m. PT (5:30 MT) in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The game will be nationally televised on VERSUS. Radio is ESPN700 AM (espn700sports.com).

The historic first Pac-12 game features its newest member, Utah, and the winningest program in conference history, USC. Excluding six wins and a loss vacated due to NCAA penalty, USC's record in the L.A. Coliseum is 405-128-27.

USC leads the all-time series 6-3, although Utah won the last match-up, 10-6 in the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl. Utah last played USC in the Coliseum in 1948.

When Utah has the ball:
Norm Chow's offense enters the Coliseum after an underwhelming performance against Montana State. Utah amassed just 16 1st downs, and 292 yards of Total Offense, but still put up 24 first half points. In the opener, Utah ran the ball 62% of plays, passing on just 38% of plays. Look for Chow to open up the playbook more against the Trojans. The Utes are led on offense by Junior RB John White IV, Senior OT Tony Bergstrom, and Junior QB Jordan Wynn.

USC enters 2011 with much to prove. The wildly talented Trojans performed poorly in 2010, ranking 6th in the PAC-10 in scoring defense (27 points per game), 6th in rush defense, last in pass defense (260 yards per game), and 7th in total yards (400). The Trojan defense had an up and down opener against Minnesota, ultimately allowing 17 points, 302 yards of total offense, 110 yards rushing (3.2 ave), and 192 passing yards. USC is led on defense by Junior DE Nick Perry (6'3, 250), Junior FS T.J. McDonald (6'3, 205), and Sophomore CB Nickell Robey (5'8, 165). The Trojan defense returns 7 starters from last season.

At Quarterback, the Utes have question marks. Jordan Wynn completed 65% of his passes in week 1, with 2 TDs and 0 INT. However, Wynn threw for just 101 yards on 23 attempts, averaging just 4.3 yards per pass attempt. Wynn often opted to drop the ball off to his TEs for short yardage passes. Against a USC defense that was the worst in the PAC-10 in defending the pass in 2010, Wynn will need to take advantage of any opening that the Trojan defense offers up.

At Running Back, John White IV rose to the occasion in his first start, rushing 19 times for 150 yards and 1 TD (7.9 per attempt). White also caught a TD pass in the opener. He'll will carry the bulk of the load in Utah's backfield, especially if Tauni Vakapuna cannot go. At Linebacker, USC will bring a lot of youth to the field. With multiple 2010 starters changing positions this season, the Troajns started 2 freshmen at OLB against Minnesota in Dion Bailey (6'0, 200) and Hayes Pullard (6'0, 225). Senior OLB Shane Horton (6'1, 220) and Sophomore OLB Marquis Simmons (6'1, 215) will rotate in. At Middle Linebacker, Senior Chris Galippo (6'2, 250) will play a big role for the team. Galippo was honorable mention all PAC-10 last season, and is a preseason all PAC-12 nominee in 2011. Galippo battled a shoulder injury through fall camp, but returned in time for the Minnesota game, and answered the challenge with 6 tackles, 2.5 TFL, and 1.5 sacks.

On the Offensive Line, Utah should get Senior OT John Cullen back from injury. Cullen and Tony Bergstrom will play a huge role in keeping the Trojan pass rush at bay. Senior C Tevita Stevens is a talented player who will keep Utah's new starters at OG in the right places. In the opener vs. Montana State, Utah's OLine got excellent push, and opened up some big holes for John White. The Utes did allow 2 sacks in the opener, though one of those was a missed pickup by backup RB Tauni Vakapuna. On the Defensive Line, USC is led by Junior DE Nick Perry. Perry had 9 sacks as a freshman in 2009, but only amassed 4 sacks in 2010. Perry's off to a good start in 2011 with with 5 tackles and 1 sack in the opener. Opposite Perry is returning starter is Junior DE Wes Horton (6'5, 265), who will split time with a very talented Junior Devon Kennard (6'3, 250). Kennard made the switch to DE from LB in the off-season and is a terror coming off the edge. Inside, the Trojans get back Senior Christian Tupou (6'2, 300) who started in 2009 before tearing up his knee and missing 2010. Next to Tupou is Senior DT DaJohn Harris (6'4, 310).

On the outside, Utah is led by Junior WR Devonte Christopher, Junior WR/TE Luke Matthews, and Junior TEs Kendrick Moeai and Dallin Rogers. Utah failed to utilize their wide receivers during week 1, yielding just 1 reception from a WR after the 1st quarter. At Tight End, Utah accounted for 10 receptions without a single incompletion on a pass intended for a tight end. The Utes' receivers are capable of much more than what they showed, and should bounce back with a solid performance against a Trojan secondary that was wildly inconsistent in 2010. Sophomore CB Nickell Robey (5'8, 165) started as a true freshman last season, and earned honorable mention all PAC-10. Robey had 4 INTs in 2010, and 1 defensive TD. Opposite Robey will be Sophomore CB Torin Harris (6'0, 180) and Junior CB Tony Burnett (6'1, 195). At safety, USC returns an All-American candidate at Free Safety in Junior T.J. McDonald (6'3, 205). McDonald is arguably the best player on this USC defense.

ADVANTAGE = Utah

While USC has more future NFL players, Utah has produced better results. USC was very poor on defense in 2010, and have undergone a facelift with positioning.

When USC has the ball:
USC ‘s offense entered the 2011 season with very high expectations. In week 1, the Trojans threw the ball on 67% of offensive plays. USC Ranked 3rd in the PAC-10 in 2010 in rushing, 5th in Passing, and 4th in total yards (431.5). They return 6 starters on offense, including All-American candidates OT Matt Kalil (6'7, 295, Junior), Robert Woods (6'1, 180, Sophomore) and Matt Barkley (6'2, 220, Junior). USC's offense produced 371 yards of total offense in week 1, with 24 first downs, 304 passing yards, but just 67 yards rushing, and just 19 points. USC converted a solid 6 of 12 on 3rd down.

On defense, Utah was very impressive in week 1, holding Montana State to just 10 points, with 258 total yards of offense. Against the run, Utah was particularly impressive, holding MSU to just 75 rushing yards on 29 attempts (2.6 yards per carry). Utah's defense is led by Sophomore LB Brian Blechen, Junior DT Star Lotulelei, and Senior LB Chaz Martinez.

At QB, USC has one of the very best in the country in Junior Matt Barkley (6'2, 220). Barkley enters his 3rd season as USC's starting QB, and is coming off of a season in which he passed for nearly 2800 yards, with 26 TDs and 12 INTs. He is expected to turn pro after this season, and is projected as the 3rd overall pick in ESPN Todd McShay's latest 2012 mock draft. In week 1, Barkley went 34/45 (a school record for completions in a game) with 304 yards and 3 TDs.

Running Back is a bit of a mystery right now for USC. Senior RB Marc Tyler (5'11, 230) was expected to be the featured Trojan back this season, but was suspended for week 1 due after a video was posted online in which Tyler spoke of USC players being paid to play (was reportedly joking, but still earned a suspension). Tyler ran for over 900 yards in 2010, and scored 10 total TDs. He will return to face Utah, but his effectiveness won't be determined until Saturday. Stepping in for Tyler against Minnesota was true freshman D.J. Morgan (5'10, 190). Morgan rushed for 70 yards on 18 carries in week 1 (3.9 average). Don't be surprise if talented sophomore Dillon Baxter sees more touches this week to add a big play threat to the running game.

The Offensive Line is the biggest question mark on an otherwise outstanding USC offense. USC returns just 2 of 5 starters up front. Junior OT Matt Kalil (6'7, 295) is a special talent and will be a 1st round NFL draft pick (likely top 10). Junior Khaled Holmes (6'4, 310) makes the move over from guard to center, and is also an All-Conference nominee. At OT, Sophomore Kevin Graff (6'6, 305) steps into a role vacated by NFL draft pick Tyron Smith. The Trojans started a pair of new OGs in week 1, Sophomore John Martinez (6'2, 290) from Cottonwood High in Salt Lake City was a prized recruit out of high school, but lacks experience. Transfer Jeremy Galten (6'5, 285) joins USC from San Mateo Junior College, and won the starting job during fall camp. Against Minnesota, USC didn't give up a single sack.

Utah's defensive front appears ready to limit USC's rushing attack. Junior DT Star Lotulelei was a beast in week 1. Junior Dave Kruger and Senior James Aiono also impressed. At DE, Senior Derrick Shelby looked more like the pre-injury Shelby that constantly disrupted defensive backfields. Shelby had 3 tackles and 1 sack in week 1. Opposite of Shelby is Joe Kruger, who impressed throughout Fall Camp for the Utes. Joe Kruger was mostly non-existent in week 1, and was bothered by the extra TE that Montana State brought in for aid in Pass protection. Keep an eye on backup Freshman DE Nate Fakahafua and backup Senior DE Nai Fotu who returns to the field after missing extensive time due to injury and suspension. Utah's DLine will minimize USC's effectiveness in the run game, but will need to keep pressure on Barkley so he doesn't have all day to find open receivers.

At Wide Receiver, USC will feature one of the nation's most dynamic playmakers in Sophomore WR Robert Woods (6'1, 180). In week 1, Woods set a school record with 17 receptions for 177 yards and 3 TDs. Barkley has a great deal of trust in Woods, and will get him the ball quickly and in space to make plays. Woods will also stretch the defense downfield. Opposite of Woods will be Freshman WR Marquis Lee (6'0, 190). Lee had 5 catches in the opener, and is extremely talented, just very inexperienced. The Trojans also return an All-Conference Nominee at TE. Senior Rhett Ellison (6'5, 250) is a playmaker who makes the move to Fullback. Replacing Ellison at TE are two Freshmen.

The Ute secondary performed surprisingly well in the opener. Senior Conroy Black (6'0, 186) will line-up on Woods most of the night. Black will need to play Woods tight off the line to prevent the quick throw-outs from Barkley. Safeties Eric Rowe (6'1, 185), Keith McGill (6'3, 200), and Michael Walker (5'9, 185) will need to roll their coverage over the top of Black for help down the field. USC likes to move Woods around at the line of scrimmage to create space off the line. Junior CB Ryan Lacy (5'9, 187) will undoubtedly have a handful of possessions where he draws Woods, and Lacy will need to prevent big plays in those scenarios. Lacy and Black both performed well against a quality WR group from Montana State. The Utah duo have the necessary speed to keep pace with Woods down the field, but should not be expected to shut Woods down.

ADVANTAGE = USC

Utah's defense is stout against the run, but unfortunately for the Utes, USC does not rely on a heavy run attack to put up points. USC's passing game is explosive, and the young Utah pass defense is not quite ready for this challenge.

Special Teams:
Kicker was an area of concern for Utah throughout fall camp, but Coleman Peterson stepped up to the challenge against Montana State, going 3/3 on XPs, and 2/2 on FGs (37, 44). While Peterson still does not have the full confidence of the coaching staff, the Junior Kicker seems capable of being productive at the position. Nick Marsh will continue to handle the kickoff duties, and was excellent in week 1. Utah's kickoff coverage forced MSU to start drive from their own 19 yard line, on average. At punter, the once reliable Sean Sellwood is really struggling. Sellwood is getting the ball out slowly, and is not striking it cleanly. Sellwood averaged just 37.8 yards per punt against Montana State. USC will likely go after Sellwood, and with multiple athletes on Special Teams, the Trojans have a good chance at blocking a punt. However, if the Trojans exert themselves too heavily toward a specific approach on punt returns, Utah will be prepared to use a fake punt from any spot on the field.

Returning punts and kickoffs for the Trojans will be Mr. Everything Robert Woods. Woods is an All-American nominee as a kick returner. Woods ranked 8th in the nation in kick return yardage in 2010, and brought 1 return to the house. Along with Woods, USC will use CB Nickell Robey, RB Curtis McNeal, and WR Brandon Carswell.

The USC kicking game is also an area of concern for the Trojans. True Freshman Andre Heidari will handle the kicking duties. Heidari got little work against Minnesota, making his only attempt at an XP. Rather than kick XPs, USC Head Coach Lane Kiffin opted to try for two-point conversions following the first two Trojan touchdowns. The decision may have had something to do with Heidari's inexperience. Junior Punter Kyle Negrete played as a kicker/linebacker at San Diego in 2008 & 2009 before transferring to USC. Negrete redshirted in 2010. Negrete averaged 42.2 yards per punt while at San Diego, but punted 4 times for a 37.3 average in the opener vs Minnesota.

Returning punts for Utah will be Sophomore WR Griff McNabb (5'7, 160) and Freshman WR Charles Henderson (5'9, 172). McNabb is the steady returner who will make the sure catch, though he won't offer as many big plays. Henderson muffed one punt in the opener, but still averaged 10.7 yards per return, with a long of 28. Senior LB Matt Martinez also blocked a punt in week 1 for Utah. Junior WR Reggie Dunn had 1 opportunity to return a kickoff in week 1, and did so for just 20 yards. Dunn is expected to be among the best return men in the conference. Next to Dunn will be CB Ryan Lacy, and possibly WR Dres Anderson.

ADVANTAGE = Utah

Both teams will feature an elite return man, and both teams have big questions at punter and kicker. Coleman Peterson performed well for Utah in week 1, while Andre Heidari didn't get the reps to prove himself. Utah is also very well coached in the special teams departments. Utah wins this battle through consistency, though the difference in this game may come down to 1 big play from USC's special teams.

Intangibles:
The weather on Saturday is expected to be ideal for a football game. Mostly clear skies with a high of 74 and a low of 60.

Utah opened the season on a Thursday night, giving them 2 extra days of preparation for the Trojans.

On the injury front, USC is almost completely healthy and did not suffer any injuries during week 1. The lone Trojan that is not expected to play Saturday is Senior Defensive Lineman Armond Armstead. For Utah, Senior OT John Cullen is expected to rejoin the team after missing the opener with a concussion. Starting Offensive Guard Vyncent Jones suffered a slight leg injury against Montana State, but will play vs. USC. Senior FB Shawn Asiata (hamstring) and backup RB Tauni Vakapuna (ankle) are both listed as questionable for Saturday. Freshman OG Isaac Asiata (knee) is not expected to play.

Perhaps the biggest intangible will be coaching. Kyle Whittingham will undoubtedly have his team prepared, and has said all the right things during the week leading up to the game. Alongside Whittingham will be former USC Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow, and former USC Offensive Line Coach Tim Davis. Meanwhile, USC Head Coach Lane Kiffin has started off the week by criticizing his team heavily, and alienating everyone not named Matt Barkley or Robert Woods. Kiffin has been back pedaling since those comments. USC Defensive Backs coach Willie Garza resigned last week for personal reasons.

Also weighing heavily on the Utes is the death of the wife of defensive lineman Ron Tongaonevai to a car accident following last week's game against Montana State. The affect it has on the team on Saturday is still and unknown, but it's something that has definitely weighed on the team and coaching staff while making preparations for USC. The lingering dark cloud of grief will still likely be with the team as they enter the Coliseum. Whether it affects there play, and understandably so if it does, could hurt the Utes on the field.

ADVANTAGE = Even

Prediction:
Utah 14, USC 20

Utah's defense will come prepared to outplay the USC offense. USC will rush for under 100 yards on the night, Barkley will surpass 250 yards passing, but ultimately the Ute defense will bend, but not break. Special Teams will make a big difference in this game. On offense, Utah will not find the same success in rushing the ball as they saw in week 1. As a team, Utah will not surpass 100 yards rushing. The hope for the Utes will be placed squarely on the mysterious shoulder of Jordan Wynn. If Wynn can throw the ball successfully down the field, Utah will win this game. Unfortunately, USC All-American T.J. McDonald will prevent that from happening with regularity. Total yards will be strikingly similar, but Utah's offense will produce just 14 points. Ultimately the Utes will return to Salt Lake City with a respectable performance under their belt, and a feeling that they could have and should have won their PAC-12 opener.

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