(13) USC (3-1) at Utah (2-2)
Thursday, October 4, 9:00 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, College Football Senior Editor
GAME NOTES: The 13th-ranked USC Trojans get back to work this week, as they take on the Utah Utes in Pac-12 action on Thursday night in Salt Lake City.
Lane Kiffin's Trojans had their sights set on a national title in 2012, but those aspirations took a huge hit with a Sept. 15 loss at Stanford (21-14). USC however, was able to get some distance between itself and that humbling loss with a 27-9 win over California the next week, heading into last week's bye with some confidence.
Kyle Whittingham's Utes are just 2-2 on the young season and also enter this game off a bye. The team has wins over Northern Colorado (41-0) and BYU (24-21) to its credit, but dropped a hard-fought 27-20 decision to Utah State in overtime and most recently, opened Pac-12 play with a 37-7 drubbing at the hands of Arizona State back on Sept. 22.
This marks USC's first trip to Salt Lake City in 95 years. The Trojans hold a 7-3 advantage in the all-time series, including a 23-14 win last year in the Coliseum.
The Trojans were supposed to have one of the nation's most prolific offenses, but the 2012 season has been a mixed bag for USC. On the year, the team is averaging 33.0 ppg and doing so on 422.0 ypg. The ground game has been an asset at 165.2 ypg, but this team is predicated on the pass (256.8 ypg) and gets it done with some serious star power.
It all starts with senior QB Matt Barkley, whose Heisman run took an unexpected detour with a horrific performance against the Cardinal a couple of weeks ago. Still, Barkley has completed 61.5 percent of his passes, for 1,005 yards, with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions.
He has one of the most dangerous receiving tandems in the country in All- Americans Marqise Lee (40 receptions, 457 yards, six TDs) and Robert Woods (25 receptions, 203 yards, four TDs).
The ground game is spearheaded by capable backs Silas Redd (338 yards, 5.8 ypc, four TDs) and Curtis McNeal (225 yards, 6.8 ypc). The pair both went over 100 yards in the win over California, with Redd finishing with 158 yards and a TD, while McNeal added 115 yards.
The Trojans have posted solid defensive numbers this season for the most part, limiting foes to just 17.2 ppg. The team is giving up 117.0 yards per game on the ground and 229.5 through the air, while recording 33 TFLs, 16 sacks and forcing 10 turnovers in the first four games.
Sophomore linebacker Dion Bailey is on his way to all-conference honors, leading USC in tackles (32) and interceptions (three). He is flanked by another gifted sophomore LB in Hayes Pullard (25 tackles, one interception). Safety T.J. McDonald (29 tackles, one interception) highlights the play in the secondary, while rush end Morgan Breslin (19 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) has been a beast up front.
The Utes have struggled with offensive consistency this season and some of that has to do with the change under center, as Jordan Wynn has retired due to numerous career injuries after playing two games this season, allowing Jon Hays to take over the rest of the way. Hays is a veteran though and has plenty of experience (7-4 as a starter), so how much the team misses Wynn remains to be seen.
Hays has played in three games this season (two starts) and has completed 58.8 percent of his passes, although just for 467 yards and four TDs. Tight end Jake Murphy and wideout DeVonte Christopher headline the receiving corps, but the two have just nine receptions apiece.
The ground game has a star in John White, but the senior has struggled a bit out of the gate. He missed the BYU game with an ankle injury, and has just 233 yards and one TD on 3.6 yards per carry this year. Dating back to last season, the Utes are a perfect 9-0 when White is the focal point of the offense and has rushed for 100 yards or more.
Whittingham has confidence in White elevating his game.
"I expect John White to bounce back and respond. He is a proven commodity - it's not like we don't know what he's capable of," said Whittingham. "He will be the first to admit he is disappointed in his performance. I expect him to be strong going forward."
Despite the 2-2 record, the defensive numbers for Utah have been solid, limiting the opposition to just 329.5 yards per game. A lack of big plays have been the biggest problem, with Utah recording a mere six takeaways in the first four games, including just two interceptions.
Junior linebacker Trevor Reilly currently leads the team in tackles (25) and is tied for the team-lead in sacks with junior end Joe Kruger with 2.5. On the other side, sophomore end Nate Fakahafua (19 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, one sack, one fumble recovery) has been active. It helps to have one of the nation's premier interior lineman taking on multiple blockers in Star Lotulelei. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound senior won the 2011 Morris Trophy as the Pac-12's top defensive lineman and enters this game with 19 tackles, 4.0 TFLs and one sack.
"It's absolutely essential that we respond. Wins in conference are tough to come by every single week. Next week we are probably playing the most talented team in the conference in USC, said Whittingham following the Arizona State loss. "They have talent throughout the roster and we've got to respond. We find out what we're made of this week and what kind of resiliency we have. In the past we've done a pretty good job with that, and we'll see if we can do it again."
Utah is outgunned on both sides of the football in this one. The Utes will try to establish the run with White, but may be forced to air it out if they are playing from behind early. Meanwhile, the Trojans need to get their season back on track to make it a real race in the Pac-12. Barkley should have a strong game and in turn, expect Lee and Woods to once again post big numbers.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: USC 34, Utah 17
10/03 10:41:46 ET