After two back-to-back nail-biting wins against the desert teams, the Trojans are in Salt Lake City for a battle with the Utes on Saturday.
The Utes are playing the first game of their season on Saturday after canceling its previous two games against Arizona and UCLA due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Many view Arizona State, who USC beat on 28-27 in its Nov. 7 home opener, as the toughest opponent for the Pac-12 South. But coach Clay Helton thinks a win against the Utes can mean just as much, if not more, for the Trojans.
“When you play Utah and you walk out of there with a victory, you’re happy for the victory, whether that’s by one point or by 100 points,” Helton said in a press conference Thursday. “Dominant wins are a lot more fun than me losing a couple of years of my life like I’ve lost the last couple of weeks. And we’re working hard to make that happen, but understand this is a damn good coach.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12 as he enters his 16th year as head coach of the Utes. Whittingham has the upper-hand with the Trojans coming to town, boasting an 11-0 record in home season openers. USC’s last victory at Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium was a 38-28 victory in 2012.
Thankfully for the Trojans, the Utes are coming into Saturday’s contest with plenty of new faces. Utah lost 12 players to the NFL Draft after the 2019 season. That group included eight players on the All-Pac-12 first team and the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year running back Zack Moss.
The Utah offense is unfamiliar to defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and the Trojans. Utah has yet to name a starting quarterback in the competition between Cam Rising, a transfer from Texas, Jake Bentley, a transfer from South Carolina who started 33 times there, or Drew Lisk, a senior who only appeared in six games in his career.
Regardless, Orlando feels he can prepare his defense for any Utah offensive scheme.
“You go into it and you get a good read on everybody,” Orlando said. “And then you go out there and you watch them in pregame and then kind of piece it together. We had to do that versus some of the younger kids at Arizona State at receiver.”
Still, USC is battling significant injuries at the linebacker position. Inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote is currently under concussion protocol, Kana’i Mauga battled a hamstring injury throughout camp and Jordan Iosefa and Solomon Tuliaupupu are both out with season-ending knee surgeries.
Outside linebacker Drake Jackson must be ready to take on a heavy workload for USC. Jackson currently has eight tackles and two sacks on the season, but with safety Raymond Scott jumping in to fill the linebacker holes, Jackson needs to be the anchor for USC’s defense.
On the other end, the Trojans must be ready to face a hard-hitting defense. Utah’s defensive unit lost nine starters in the offseason but is returning linebacker Devin Lloyd and defensive end Mika Tafua. Lloyd led the Utes with 91 tackles last year and Tafua tied the FBS lead with four fumble recoveries.
While Helton expects plenty of in-game adjustments to work out the personnel matchups, he stressed that the Trojan offense must do two things to win. “One, the improvement in the run game which has got to keep going,” Helton said. “It’s going to get challenged this week against a good defensive front. And two, the discipline of the quarterback and how he’s growing, checking the ball down and not forcing the ball into those maximum zone drop coverages.”
Lloyd and Tafua could cause problems for a USC offense that still struggles with converting on third downs and turning strong drives into touchdowns. The Trojans were just six for 15 on third and fourth downs combined last week. Despite averaging over 500 yards, they only scored 31 points.
Quarterback Kedon Slovis had some shaky throws against Arizona. To beat Utah, Slovis has to be sharp. If he is able to make accurate passes to his corps receivers, the receivers can gain significant yardage after the catch against a secondary that is still gelling.
Trojans-Utes kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.