Game 5: 'In the Still of the Night'
The Trojans make their first conference visit to Salt Lake City for a dangerous Thursday night game against a hungry bunch of Utes.
The USC Trojans (3-1, 1-1 in the Pac-12), ranked No. 12 by the USA Today coaches' poll and No. 13 by the Associated Press, head to Salt Lake City for the first time in 95 years to face the Utah Utes (2-2, 0-1) in a Pac-12 South division battle at 6 p.m. (PDT) on Thursday, October 4, at Rice-Eccles Stadium and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. It is the 11th meeting between the two schools, with the Trojans holding a 7-3 edge. USC defeated Utah a season ago, 23-14, in the Pac-12's inaugural game at the Coliseum. The last time USC played at Utah, the Trojans won 51-0 in 1917.
Both teams had a bye a week ago in preparation for this Thursday night matchup. On Sept. 22, the Trojans rushed for 296 yards and held Cal to just three field goals in a not-as-close-as-it-looked 27-9 victory in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the Utes were throttled at Arizona State, 37-7, allowing the Sun Devils a shocking 512 total yards and struggling to do much of anything on offense.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (28-14 career collegiate head coaching record; 21-8 at USC) is in his third season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, Utah headman Kyle Whittingham (80-50) is in his eighth season at the reins of the Utes. His record of 68-27, includes a 7-1 bowl mark. He spent 10 years as the defensive coordinator in Salt Lake City before earning the top job. However, this year's Utah team has struggled unexpectedly. Injuries have been a huge factor on offense, but a Ute defense expected to be among the conference's best has been inconsistent.
With Norm Chow's stopover as offensive coordinator at his alma mater limited to a single season before he took the top job at Hawaii, Whittingham turned to former Utah star quarterback Brian Johnson as his offensive coordinator. Johnson, who was the MVP of Utah's 2009 Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama, had served as the Utes' quarterback coach in 2010-11 (a role he also continues in 2012). However, key injuries have hampered Johnson's efforts, including the forced retirement of starting quarterback Jordan Wynn following his fourth shoulder injury in two years in a loss to Utah State on Sept. 7. Utah ranks near the bottom of the Pac-10 in nearly every offensive category. Senior Jon Hays took over for Wynn, much as he did in 2011. Hays is not the most accurate passer, but he has directed Utah to a 7-4 mark as a starter in 2011-12. Freshman Travis Wilson, a 6-foot-6 true freshman from San Clemente, has appeared in every game for the Utes, but is used mostly in wildcat formations.
Not helping matters has been the ankle injury hampering solid senior running back John White. A case could be made for White as the conference's top returning running back in 2012, and he rumbled for 215 yards in Utah's first two games, before sitting out the Utes' victory over BYU on Sept. 15. He returned against ASU, but gained just 18 yards in 14 carries. Freshman Jarrell Oliver got the first crack at replacing White, but struggled against BYU. When White takes a breather against the Trojans, look for more of JC transfer Kelvin York, a thumper who showed well in garbage time in Tempe.
While the Utes have eight players who have caught at least five passes (including White out of the backfield), no one player has become a true standout or go-to target. Senior wideout DeVonte Christopher, who burned USC repeatedly in 2011, is tied with reserve sophomore tight end Jake Murphy for the team lead with nine grabs. But six of Murphy's catches came in the opener vs. Northern Colorado and Christopher was held without a catch at Arizona State. Sophomores Dres Anderson (eight catches) and Kenneth Scott (six receptions) have been the most impressive options besides Christopher on the outside, with Scott representing the Utes best deep threat, averaging 22 yards per catch and scoring twice. Starting tight end David Rolf, a senior, has five catches.
The Utes have also been forced to play a little mix-and-match on the front five, thanks to injury and ineffectiveness. This week's depth chart shows senior Sam Brenner slated for his third straight start at LT (after starting the first two games at RG), junior Jeremiah Tofaeono solidifying his hold at LG, and three-year starter Tevita Stevens, a Rimington Award candidate, on lockdown at center. Junior Vyncent Jones is expected to start again at RG after leaving the Arizona State game with a knee injury (forcing redshirt freshman Siaosi Aiono into his first game action). True freshman Jeremiah Poutasi appears to have taken over the starting RT role from junior Percy Taumoelau, who struggled in the season's first two games.
Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake was expected to bring a veteran Utah group to the forefront of the Pac-12 South. Statistically, Utah has been solid, ranking in the top half of the conference in most defensive rankings (except pass efficiency defense). But the Utes have forced just six turnovers in four games, gave up key conversions late in an upset loss to Utah State, and were overwhelmed by Arizona State's passing attack. Still, Utah's allowed just 329 total yards per game (over 400 yards per outing against FBS-level foes) and notched 11 sacks.
As usual, Utah loves rotating players on its defensive line - utilizing as many as 12 men so far in 2012, if you count a group of hybrid linebacker/defensive ends it likes to use. The star is senior nose tackle Star Lotulelei, who even facing double- and triple-teams has 19 tackles and has forced two fumbles. Next to him is senior Dave Kruger, who has 13 stops. Junior defensive end Joe Kruger is expected back in his starting spot after missing the ASU game with an injury. His 2.5 sacks (among 10 tackles) are tied for the team lead. Sophomore Nate Fakahafua starts at the other end spot and has 19 tackles and a sack.
Among those hybrid linebackers also seeing time at defensive end are starting strongside LB Trevor Reilly, a junior. He's Utah's leader with 25 tackles and also has 2.5 sacks. Sophomores VJ Fehoko and Jacoby Hale (a co-starter at Utah's "rover" linebacker spot) also see time at defensive end. Hale made his first start at ASU and is sharing the rover LB spot with junior Victor Spikes, who saw his first game action in Tempe. In the middle, redshirt freshman LT Filiaga and senior Boo Andersen are splitting time based on opponents' personnel. Filiaga has 18 stops and Andersen 11.
The Utes are led in the secondary by junior strong safety Brian Blechen, a playmaker who returned to the lineup against Arizona State after serving a three-game suspension to start the season for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Junior Quade Chappuis, a former walk-on who started in Blechen's spot, is still a factor and leads the Ute secondary with 21 tackles. Sophomore free safety Eric Rowe, a freshman All-America in 2011, missed Utah's last two games with a hamstring injury but is expected back against USC. Sophomore Tyron Morris-Edwards (another former walk-on) gained valuable experience in Rowe's absence. Seniors Ryan Lacy and Reggie Topps are the starters at corner. Topps, a veteran nickel back (who still fills that role when Utah goes to the formation), has moved past senior Moe Lee to start full time. Lee plays regularly in the nickel and had a 47-yard fumble return for a score against BYU.
Utah Special Teams
Senior placekicker Coleman Petersen, whose possible game-tying FG attempt in the waning seconds was blocked by USC in 2011, is just three-of-six on field goals this year. Range isn't a problem (his three makes were all from at least 40 yards out), but accuracy remains an issue. Junior Nick Marsh handles the kickoff duties. Senior Sean Sellwood is averaging 47.8 yards per boot (second nationally). Australian walk-on Tom Hackett, a freshman, is adept at sky-high placement punts (the Utes call them "sky kicks" in their press materials) - he's punted seven times in Utah's past two games and had three of them downed inside the 10-yard-line against BYU. Christopher is the lead kick returner, averaging 24.5 yards per attempt. Redshirt freshman receiver Charles Henderson handles most of the punt return opportunities (averaging 12.7 yards per attempt in that role).
USC Offensive Gameplan
For the first time in 2012, the USC rushing attack was unleashed at full force against a California defense that was caught unawares. With Silas Redd notching his second 100-yard outing of 2012 (158 yards on 21 carries, including a 33-yard TD run) and Curtis McNeal topping the 100-yard threshold for the first time this season (115 in 10 carries), USC didn't really need its passing attack. Still, Marqise Lee caught two Matt Barkley TD tosses, and while USC wasted a number of opportunities (mainly due to three turnovers), the mental boost of bouncing back from a trampling by the Stanford defense with a powerful physical performance of its own had to be good for the Trojans. The biggest concern, obviously, is another late-game Khaled Holmes injury that puts his availability this Thursday into question.
However, with Abe Markowitz now healthy and available (he played most of the game at left guard before shifting to center after Holmes' injury), the Trojan coaching staff is a bit more at ease. Against Stanford, USC had no choice but redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi at center. With the capable Markowitz at center, the early season starter at left guard, Marcus Martin, returns to the group. Don't expect a USC front five with this personnel to struggle as it did against the Cardinal - even with Utah's impressive and versatile front four.
Though I don't expect USC to run the ball as effectively as it did against Cal, I do expect to see a coaching staff more committed to mixing the rushing attack into the overall offense in Salt Lake City. At the same time, however, Utah's secondary had a very tough time matching up with the speed of Arizona State's receiving corps, especially across the middle of the field. And with Utah utilizing its outside linebackers to rush off the edge, that opens up opportunities to throw against its inside backers. Before last week's game, there was much concern among fans and journalists alike about USC's running game. Now, that concern has shifted to USC's almost stubborn devotion to a short-and-sideways passing attack. Is this the week we finally see Barkley utilize his full corps of receivers down the middle of the field?
USC Defensive Gameplan
USC's young and improving defensive line exploded on Cal quarterback Zach Maynard, notching nine total sacks - 3.5 of those coming from the phenomenal Morgan Breslin. Only Breslin's shooting star has outshone that of true freshman Leonard Williams, who is growing more impressive each week. Dion Bailey continues to become a physical and emotional leader, and it certainly appears Lamar Dawson is back at full speed. The Trojans also harassed Maynard into two bad interceptions and completely shut down the Bears' running attack, allowing just 77 yards on the ground.
USC's ability to hold Cal to three field goals - even when the Bear offense seemed to find a bit of a groove in the third quarter - was also impressive. But T.J. McDonald, whose red-zone interception thwarted Cal's last real look at the game, spoke for an unsatisfied Trojan defense when asked about USC's effectiveness inside its own 20, pushing for improvement from himself and his teammates in the middle of the field.
A collarbone injury to Hayes Pullard has his availability in some doubt for Thursday. Pullard, Dawson and Bailey have formed what has the makings of one of USC's greatest linebacker trios ever, so any injury is a problem - especially against a Utah team that's struggled to run or make any kind of downfield passing attack work. Expect USC's front four to focus heavily on White and the Ute running game early, forcing the erratic Hays to make plays. White's a better back than anyone that Cal has, but the Bears are much better at receiver and quarterback than Utah. Expect the USC front seven to control the line of scrimmage. If that happens, look for USC to force more than its share of turnovers.
Prior to 2012, I - like many of you - had this one circled as a trap game. You know Utah's fan base will be fired up and that the bright national lights of an ESPN Thursday night game have burned the Trojans' eyes in the past. We also thought Utah would be a better team than they appear to be right now.
Even though the Utes stunk up the field in road losses at Utah State and Arizona State, there's no doubt in my mind that the Trojans will not face the team that lost those games. The Utes may even be more dangerous considering the embarrassment they're coming off of in Tempe. USC will get the absolute best game Utah can offer in this one and must be ready.
So, yes, intangibles favor the Utes. What about the rest? That's all Trojans. If USC can weather the early emotional storm, maintain control of White and exploit its physical advantages at the offensive skill positions, it should eventually take control. The only way USC loses this one is if the Trojans make a bevy of mistakes. Instead, this is the week USC starts cleaning up those emotional and physical errors for good.
USC 31, Utah 17
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 12 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). 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 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)