Game Preview: Utah vs USC

The Trojans come to town to take on a reeling Ute squad

Facts and Factors

The Utes (2-2, 0-1 Pac-12) host No. 13/12 USC (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12 on Thursday, Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. MDT in Rice-Eccles Stadium. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN. Radio is ESPN700 AM (espn700sports. com) and SIRIUS/XM (85).

Both Utah and USC are coming off bye weeks.

The game is sold out with the exception of standing room tickets that are available only to University of Utah students.

Kyle Whittingham is 8-8 as a head coach against teams ranked in the A.P. Top 25 and 1-0 this season (vs. then No. 25 Brigham Young on Sept. 15).

Utah and USC have not played in Salt Lake City in 95 years. The Trojans last came to town in 1917, when they beat Utah 51-0.

A year ago, Utah lost to USC in its Pac-12 debut, 23-14 in the Coliseum. Trailing 17-14 with 11 seconds left in regulation, Utah had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Coleman Petersen's 41-yard ? eld goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown.

Whittingham is 6-1 coming off regular-season byes, with his only loss coming last season against Washington. Whittingham's post-bye victories came over Wyoming (2005, 2007), Colorado State (2006, 2009), New Mexico (2008) and Iowa State (2010).

Utah's record in Thursday games is 53-25-5 and the Utes have won eight straight since losing on a Thursday at Oregon State in 2007. The Trojans are 22-10-3 all-time in Thursday games.

USC has claimed 11 national championships, while Utah's best national ?nish was No. 2 (A.P.) in 2008. The Utes ?nished No. 4 in the A.P. poll in 2004.

Utah has made 10 bowl appearances since 2000, going 9-1 with a 2-0 record in BCS bowl games. Utah is one of just three teams to win six bowl games in the last seven years (with Florida and TCU).

Utah's defense was down two starters to injury in its last game (a loss at ASU): free safety Eric Rowe and defensive end Joe Kruger. Both are expected back for the USC game … Making his first start as a Ute vs. ASU was sophomore linebacker Jacoby Hale. Hale and Victor Spikes, who got his first action of the season against ASU, are the new co-starters at rover … Moving up to second on the running back depth chart after a career game against ASU is junior college transfer Kelvin York … Redshirt freshman Siaosi Aiono, who played in his first game as a Ute against ASU after an injury to starter Vyncent Jones, will start this week at right guard … V.J. Fehoko is now in the three deep at both stud linebacker and left end … Reggie Topps replaces Moe Lee as one starting corner. Ryan Lacy holds down the other corner spot … Two true freshmen have played for Utah this season: quarterback Travis Wilson and OL Jeremiah Poutasi.

Utah is ranked fourth in the Pac-12 and 27th in the nation in rushing defense (111.25). The Utes are ranked third in the conference in pass defense (218.25) and fourth in total defense (329.5). Utah's best quarter on both sides of the ball is the third, when the Utes have scored 34 points while allowing just three … Utah and its opponents are both converting on 31% of their third down attempts and both have 11 sacks … Dating back to last season, Utah is 9-0 when John White rushes for 100 yards … 16 players have caught passes for Utah this season … Utah has earned one Pac-12 Player of the Week honor this fall: freshman punter Tom Hackett (playing in his first American football game) on Sept. 15 against BYU.

The Salt Lake City Air National Guard KC-135 will do a flyover in "Utah Man II" prior to the national anthem … Utah's ski team will be honored at a quarter break for its second-place finish at the 2012 NCAA Championships … Jordan Wynn has been invited by ESPN to participate in two studio shows in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 9. Wynn will do a segment on College Football Daily at 1 p.m. ET (11 a.m. MT) and will be a guest analyst on The Experts at 2:30 ET (12:30 MT) with Andre Ware, Mike Bellotti, Mark Schlabach and Tom Luginbill. Both shows will be live on ESPNU … With the USC game already sold out, the Utes have sold out 15-straight games in Rice-Eccles Stadium, including every game since 2010 … Utah's all-time record after byes (excluding bowls) is 94-37-6 and 77-23-6 in home games. The Utes are 27-8-1 (22-2-1 at home) in October games played after a bye.

When USC Has The Ball

Get ready for one of the most prolific passing attacks in the country. With preseason Heisman Trophy favorite Matt Barkley at quarterback USC has one of the best field generals in the country. Give him Robert Woods and Marquise Lee, the top receiving duo in the country, and the USC passing game is downright deadly. The sophomore Lee is a matchup nightmare and could be the frontrunner for the Belitnikoff Award at this point with 40 catches, 457 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Throw in Woods' 25 catches and 4 touchdowns, and that's only 4 catches less than Utah's entire team has this year. They won't be stopped, but Utah will need to contain the two and try to keep them under a combined 200 yards.

Matt Barkley hasn't been the Matt Barkley we expected. His numbers aren't bad with 12 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in 4 games, but 4 of those interceptions have come in the last two games against Pac 12 opponents, and a lot of his yards have come after the catch with Lee outrunning DBs on the reg. If he's not accurate, Utah has to take advantage and pick off the passes that they've continually dropped over the course of the season to this point. Still, there's not a coach in the country that wouldn't die to have Barkley under center for their team. He's an elite talent and a likely first round pick on next year's NFL draft.

The Utah defensive line is going against their best offensive line to date, although it's young at spots and has battled injuries. The anchor of the line is senior Khaled Holmes. It's no coincidence that USC's lone loss came in his absence against Stanford. The offensive line was brutalized by an aggressive Cardinal D that picked up five sacks in the game, and multiple hurries on Matt Barkley, but with Holmes back against Cal, things were much improved. He was injured towards the end of the Cal game, and may not play against the Utes. If he doesn't, senior Abe Markowitz will take his spot. Holmes absence would be a huge break for Utah. The right side of the line is in good hands with all conference candidate Kevin Graf at tackle, and Utah native John Martinez at guard. From center out to right tackle, USC might have the best right side of the offensive line in the Pac 12. The left side is a bit shakier. Left tackle Aundrey Walker is in his first year as a starter while sophomore Marcus Martin is in his second year anchoring the left guard spot. The entire line has given up only 7 sacks on the year, with most of those coming against Stanford.

Utah counters with one of the top defensive lines in the conference, led by All American candidate Star Lotulelei. Lotulelei has been the force we all expected throughout the year, constantly taking on multuple blockers, and still putting up solid numbers with 19 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 1 sack, to go along with 2 pass breakups. It will be interesting to see where Star lines up in relation to Holmes, should be play. USC might want to test Star right away and see if he can beat Holmes one on one if he's lines up as a 0 or 1 tech. If Star is split out a bit more, or if Markowitz is the starter, he'll likely face double teams, but having him line up right under Holmes to try to get a one on one matchup as much as possible could be preferable for Utah. If Star is taking on double teams, Dave Kruger, Seni Fauonuku, and Tenny Palepoi have to be active. Joe Kruger's possible return will boost the line as well in stuffing the run game. Nate Fakahafua is a USC level athlete and needs to play like one. If he has a big game, the Utes' chances will increase significantly.

The Utah linebackers are going to have to be better than they've been. With the thunder and lightning duo of Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal, the Trojans are going to be able to mix up the running game with different looks. Utah will counter with many different linebackers groups, including multiple guys we haven't seen this year possibly getting a lot of run. For the sake of keeping things a surprise, we'll refrain from elaborating more, but expect Utah to possibly employ some 2 linebacker sets, even bringing up safeties to play the third linebacker at times. Both Redd and McNeal are capable of going over 100 yards, but haven't been overly consistent this year. If the Utah defensive line can get into the backfield early and break the rhythm of the backs, they've have a much better chance of slowing down the Trojan offense.

In the secondary, the Utes are going to have three corners on the field for much of the game. Ryan Lacy has been the most consistent Utah corner this season and may not leave the field. Reggie Topps has overtaken Moe Lee as the other starter at corner with Lee struggling in recent weeks, but both will see the field a ton with Topps sliding over to the nickel spot while Lee takes over the corner spot. Eric Rowe isn't a certainty to return at safety, and Brian Blechen had the worst game of his career against Arizona State, his first of the season following a three game suspension. They have to be significantly better or this will get ugly quickly. The USC receivers have decent size, but are very fast and shifty. So far on the season, Woods and Lee have combined for 10 touchdowns, and also have talented tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer to work with as well.

The Trojans operate out of a pro-style formation and no one in the country runs it better than Barkley. Utah must negate USC's passing game as much as possible. That probably means keeping Barkley and company under 300 yards on the day.

The Trojans ‘offense has been somewhat stagnant the last two weeks, scoring 14 and 27, both below their season average of 33, and well below expectations for a team that many expected to be an offensive juggernaut. With 12 days to prepare, and most importantly heal, they should be ready to fire on all cylinders.

How does Utah stop USC from scoring? Utah must win the battle at the line of scrimmage. This sounds simple and cliché, but they need to do it with a minimal number of players at the line, while dropping as many linebackers, and at times, defensive ends Nate Fakahafua and Trevor Reilly, into coverage. If the defensive line can't hold the line consistently, make plays in the running games without the help of three linebackers throughout the game, USC will put up 30+ points and Utah will lose by two touchdowns. The Utes don't need to put excessive pressure on Barkley the way that Stanford did. They don't have the personnel to do that so any expectation of a 4+ sack day and multiple hurries is unreasonable. Sound coverage out of the corners, linebackers staying with their assignments, and safeties being in position to help the corners with Woods and Lee will keep the Utes in the game. It sounds simple, but it's all about executing. Utah must out-execute USC and play sound football while forcing turnovers. It won't be easy.

Advantage: USC

When Utah Has the Ball

Trying to define this team offensively has been tough. John White's injury threw a wrench into everything and the Utes became a team that could neither run nor pass. Jon Hays will get the nod again and needs to be more effective than he was against Arizona State. That means shorter drops, quicker reads, and quicker passes.

The Utah offensive line is a patchwork line in progress. We know what we're getting on the left side and down the middle with Brenner, Tofaeono and Stevens, who have been decent as a group, but not Pac 12 quality. The right side is a scary thought if you're a Utah fan. Redshirt freshman Siaosi Aiono is projected to get his first career start at right guard, but don't be surprised if Kyle Whittingham trots out another player in his place. True freshman Jeremiah Poutasi will get the nod at right tackle. Lane and Monte Kiffin have to be licking their chops at the thought of an all freshman right side of the line. Defensive end Morgan Breslin has been a pass rushing terror on the year and is primed to make life miserable for the Utes. He might be the best overall pass rusher in the conference with his 5.5 sacks on the year and 9 tackles for loss. Not the biggest guy, Breslin is a speed rusher who works opposite Wes Horton, who is more of a run stopper.

The USC defensive tackles are young, but stout, big time players. Antwaun Woods is a rock in the middle who clogs it up like a teenager's pores. Uko is a bit quicker and more disruptive in the backfield. He has 3 sacks on the year and combined with Morgan on the left side, will give Utah's young right side of the line all sorts of problems. Behind Uko is Leonard Williams, who is second on the team in sacks with 4. The USC defensive line has to like how well they match up with Utah's struggling offensive line.

John White has had 10 days to heal up to full strength, and I expect a new John White this week. John White of 2011 where he'd grind out yards, often after contact, and push the pile time and time again. If White isn't ready yet, or still insists on dancing in the backfield, waiting to find holes that aren't going to come, Utah is going to be in for a lot of 3 and out possessions. If White can't cut it, Kelvin York showed against Arizona State that he's ready to handle the load, running for 86 yards on 13 carries. Jarrell Oliver will likely see a few more touches this week as well.

TIGHT END SEAM ROUTE. TIGHT END SEAM ROUTE. TIGHT END SEAM ROUTE. Where has this gone? Utah ran it to perfection again and again in spring and fall, and practices often have a lot of success with the tigh end going 15 yards down the middle of the field, yet Brian Johnson has not dialed it up with any sort of consistency. If Utah doesn't get at least 5 catches out of their tight ends tonight, they'll have trouble moving the ball. The most effective offensive play for the Utes this year? Tight end seam route. Now run it more than twice per game.

USC's linebacker group is young, all three of them sophomores. Dion Bailey is the best of the group. He was a freshman All American last year and has been even better in 2012. He leads the team in tackles and has pitched in 3 interceptions. If Hays gets sloppy going over the middle, Bailey will make him pay. Alongside Bailey are two other solid guys in Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson. They're giving up under 120 yards per game on the ground.

Dres Anderson had his breakout game last season at USC. Can he do it again? The speedster has been mostly absent in 2011 with the Utah quarterbacks unable to get him the ball. At this point, expecting more than 2 catches out of Devonte Christopher is setting yourself up for disappointment. We know what Christopher can do, but expecting him to do it, or have Hays get him the ball is foolish. Kenneth Scott has been able to use his size and athleticism to exploit those defencencies in opposing corners. He won't be able to do that against USC who will likely throw 6-0, 190 pound Torin Harris at Scott anytime he's on the field. 5-8 Nickell Robey is the other corner. Neither has an interception on the season

USC's safety duo of TJ McDonald and Jawanza Starling leads one of the top safety groups in the contry. McDonald is an all American type of player, while Starling already has two picks on the year. McDonald may creep up into the box at times looking like a fourth linebacker. He's second on the team in tackles. Utah is going to have trouble beating the USC secondary on any deep balls and will need to work short, quick throws if the Trojan defenders give space.

Kyle Whittingham has been adamant over the past few weeks that the Utes woudld be more aggressive on offense and take more shots down the field, but the play calling has remained vanilla and predictable. If the Utes don't operate out of the shotgun for most of the game, making quick throws to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers, they will lose. The play calling doesn't need to be a bunch of tricks, but the shotgun, or at least pistol formation is a must. If Hays doesn't have time to throw, or White is facing defenders almost instantly when he gets the ball, the offense won't crack 10 points. The split second gained by putting Hays in the pistol or shotgun will benefit both the passing game in giving Hays more time. In the running game, getting White the ball a split second earlier, allowing him to make an earlier read, will make a huge difference. If we see the same old Utah offense, this game will get ugly quickly.

Advantage: USC

Prediction

Utah matches up well with USC, even with their deficiencies on both sides of the ball. Maybe not as well as I thought earlier in the year, but Utah's game fits well with what USC likes to do. The biggest problems is going to be with the USC athletes. There's too much speed. If Utah gets down early, or down by two or more scores at any point, this is over. They need to keep it close or USC may end up runnig away with the game. The biggest problem with that is that USC generally starts strong, outscoring opponents 34-7 in the first quarter. Utah, on the other hand, has been outscored by that same 34-7 mark in the first quarter this season. Regardless, I feel like the Utes will make it a ballgame through the first half, but too much Lee and Woods in the second, with one of them breaking a long one, will be more than the Utah offense can overcome. No Thursday night magic this week, but if Holmes doesn't play, things could get very interesting.

USC 27 Utah 13

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