Dramatic finishes have become a trademark of recent games between Utah and USC. When the Trojans visit Salt Lake City on Saturday to take on the Utes, chances are good the same scenario will play out once again.
The stakes are high in this latest installment of a budding Pac-12 South rivalry.
USC (4-2, 3-1 Pac-12) can put itself in the driver's seat to return to the Pac-12 Championship Game with a win over the Utes. The Trojans already took one step forward with a 31-20 victory over previously unbeaten Colorado. USC has won 15 of 16 contests against Pac-12 South foes under head coach Clay Helton.
Utah (4-2, 2-2) is the lone Pac-12 South team to beat the Trojans during Helton's tenure. Kyle Whittingham has the Utes back on track after a rough start in league play. Utah is coming off resounding back-to-back wins over Arizona and Stanford, but the Utes have no margin for error at this point in the Pac-12 South title chase.
USC holds an 11-5 lead in the series. Utah has won the last two games played in Salt Lake City — winning on a touchdown in the final seconds both in 2014 and 2016.
USC at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Utah -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. How will USC's defense fare without Porter Gustin?
The Trojans learned earlier in the week that Porter Gustin would miss the remainder of his senior season after fracturing an ankle against Colorado on Saturday. Losing Gustin is a major blow. He was leading the Pac-12 with 7.0 sacks in six games. Gustin also ranked fourth in the league with 10 tackles for a loss. His disruptive playmaking helped the defense remained steady amid an inconsistent offensive effort.
USC was already a bit thin at linebacker before Gustin's injury. Middle linebackers Cameron Smith and Palaie Gaoteote are both still on the mend from recent injuries and are questionable for Saturday. Smith did not play against the Buffaloes while recovering from a hamstring strain. Gaoteote is in concussion protocol after experiencing a helmet-to-helmet collision with Colorado receiver Laviska Shenault Jr.
2. Can Utah's offense keep operating at peak efficiency?
One reason why the Utes recovered from a 0-2 start in Pac-12 play is that the offense finally found its identity. The offensive line is dominating the line of scrimmage more often and opening running lanes for Zack Moss, Armand Shyne and Tyler Huntley. Receivers are dropping fewer passes. Moss is back to full strength after lingering injuries limited him earlier in the season.
The results have been impressive. Utah is averaging 41.0 points and 458 yards per game over its last two contests. The Utes have rushed for at least 200 yards in three straight games for the first time since hitting that mark in six consecutive games in 2016. Moss ranks third among Pac-12 players with 102.83 rushing yards per game. Huntley is eighth in total offense with 238.0 yards per contest.
3. Which team will get a defensive or special teams touchdown?
Scoring points off defensive and special teams plays is a hallmark of this series. It has provided some thrilling moments and decisive momentum swings over the years.
Utah's first victory over USC in Pac-12 play — a 24-21 result in 2014 — was aided in part by Davion Orphey scooping up a fumbled lateral and returning it 53 yards for the Utes' first touchdown. The Utes scored their first points in last season's 28-27 loss to the Trojans on an 18-yard fumble return by Marquise Blair. USC pulled away from Utah for a 42-24 win in 2016 after Smith took one of his three interceptions on the day back for a 54-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
The Trojans also got dramatic special teams stops to secure victories on two different occasions. In 2011, they blocked and returned a tying field goal attempt on the game's final play to secure a 23-14 victory. Last season, USC stopped Troy Williams on a two-point run with 42 seconds left to escape with a 28-27 win.
Last-second victories have turned football games between Utah and USC into must-see TV. This year will be no exception. Both teams enter the game with tons of positive momentum. The Trojans may have a tougher time keeping it, though. Zack Moss is running at full strength again, and Utah's defense may be the best that it's been during Kyle Whittingham's tenure. With USC hurting at linebacker and showing inconsistency on offense, another loss in Salt Lake City seems inevitable.
Prediction: Utah 27, USC 20
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.