The USC Trojans visiting the Utah Utes in a Thursday night Pac-12 football showdown sounded like must-see tv before the season started.
USC was supposed to be steamrolling its way through the conference en route to the national championship, with Utah, a Pac-12 South contender, lying in wait on the far side of the Trojans’ bye week, hoping to be responsible for USC’s annual loss to a lower ranked (or unranked) team.
Five weeks into the season, the stakes aren’t quite as high for USC’s first game at Utah since 1917. The Trojans lost their footing three weeks ago against Stanford, and the Utes, just 2-2 coming off a big loss to Arizona State, have problems of their own.
Both teams will need strong play from their offensive lines tonight.
Utah’s line, featuring two new starters, has surrendered 11 sacks this year and is going up against a USC defense that leads the conference with 15 sacks. True freshman Jeremiah Poutasi is the Utes’ starter at right tackle, and redshirt freshman Siaosi Aiono, who played in his first game last weekend, will start at right guard.
They’ll have their hands full and then some with USC’s defensive line, especially defensive end Morgan Breslin, who’s been the surprise of the season for USC and currently leads the Pac-12 in sacks and tackles for loss.
The Utah offense has gotten off to a slow start; the team is dead last in the conference in total offense.
Former Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn retired from football earlier this season after suffering his fourth shoulder injury in three years; his replacement, Jon Hays, also filled in for Wynn at the end of 2011. He’s completing 58.8% of his passes, for 467 yards, 4 touchdowns and one interception.
With a semi-new quarterback, the Utes would like to rely on the run, but they haven’t been able to get much done there either. Senior John White IV, who had more than 1,500 yards last season, has been hampered by an ankle injury and has just 233 yards and one touchdown in 2012. Utah is 9-0 in games when White runs for more than 100 yards, but he hasn’t been at full strength all season.
USC’s offense raises almost as many questions.
The starter at left tackle is undecided. Redshirt freshman Aundrey Walker has been the starter, but after the Stanford loss, competition for the spot reopened. Walker and true freshman Max Tuerk split reps during practice and rotated against Cal, and while Walker played better in that game, they split practice time evenly again over the bye, and Kiffin hasn’t announced if Walker has reclaimed the role.
In the Trojans’ loss to Stanford, USC was without senior center Khaled Holmes and backup center Abe Markowitz. Holmes played in USC’s 27-9 win over Cal two weeks ago but reinjured his ankle in the fourth quarter. His status is unknown, but he was seen wearing a boot earlier this week.
Per the USC Athletics department Twitter feed, the Trojans have rushed for an average of 212 yards per game with Holmes in the lineup, and just 26 in the game without him, so getting him back would be a huge help for the line, especially going up against Utah’s tough defense.
The Utes are 29th in the nation in total defense. Nose tackle Star Lotulelei gets most of the attention because he demands more blockers; he has 19 tackles and two forced fumbles this year. Linebackers Trevor Reilly (25 tackles, 2.5 sacks, fumble recovery) and senior Dave Fagergren (23 tackles) are less hyped but just as dangerous.
Defensive end Joe Kruger didn’t play in Utah’s loss to ASU, but he could be back for USC. Along with cornerback Reggie Topps, Kruger leads the Pac-12 in forced fumbles per game – and USC’s running backs have coughed up the ball more times than coach Lane Kiffin would like.
Utah said the goal against USC is, as always, to stop the run, but coach Kyle Whittingham also wants to see more from the passing game.
“We need to the throw the ball more than we have,” he said this week.
If they do, look for it to go towards whichever receiver USC’s Nickell Robey isn’t covering. Opponents have had the luxury of throwing away from the Trojans’ top corner because USC still doesn’t have a solid #2. Torin Harris played in the last three games but is still working his way back after missing most of last year with a shoulder injury. Freshman Kevon Seymour reportedly stepped up during the bye week and could share time at the spot.
Robey isn’t the only Trojan opponents are building their game plans around. Wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee were the talk of the nation before the season but they haven’t yet been able to replicate last year’s big performances. Lee, who is fourth nationally in receptions and tenth in receiving yards, says the duo is constantly double-teamed.
Woods, who put up huge numbers in 2011 while playing through an injury, has just 25 catches for 203 yards and four touchdowns. Kiffin admitted earlier this week that the lack of targets is part of the problem, so look for quarterback Matt Barkley to go to Woods a little more often.
If USC can get off to a fast start and come out scoring, they should be able to handle the Utes with no problem. In Utah’s last game, a 37-7 loss to Arizona State, the Sun Devils scored on their first three possessions and the Utes couldn’t recover.
Other than the opener against Hawaii, USC hasn’t been able to jump out to a big lead early, but that would be the best case scenario for the Trojans, who are hoping to win by a greater margin than they did in last season’s matchup.
In 2011, the final score was 23-14 after linebacker Chris Galippo blocked Utah’s tying field goal and Torin Harris recovered and ran it back for a touchdown.
The Trojans will be happy to get a win, no matter how they do it, but a strong performance against the Utes would work wonders for the team’s confidence moving forward.
Of course, it is a Thursday night ESPN game, so anything could happen.