Utes finally make season debut when they host the Trojans on Saturday night
Another week, another come-from-behind victory for the USC Trojans. This time the Trojans rallied with just 1:35 left on the clock to defeat the Arizona Wildcats, 34-30, in Tucson. Instead of Drake London, it was Vavae Malepeai who scored the game-winning touchdown. And once again, USC's defense had to step up in the final seconds to secure the hard-fought victory.
This week the Trojans head to Salt Lake City to take on the Utah Utes, the two-time defending Pac-12 South champion. The Utes have yet to play a game, as their first two (vs. Arizona, at UCLA) were canceled while the program dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak. The last six meetings between these division foes have been split with the home team winning each game. USC hasn't won in Salt Lake City since 2012.
USC at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -3
When USC Has the Ball
The Trojans' penalty issues aren't exclusive to the defense, as the offense needs to stop committing key ones that kill drives. On two separate occasions last week, USC was moved back out of scoring position because of flags. One of these fruitless possessions came after the Trojans had given themselves a goal-to-go situation. These mental lapses and a lack of discipline are the types of self-inflicted mistakes that have plagued USC throughout head coach Clay Helton's tenure. Fortunately, this has not come back to hurt the Trojans thus far, but it's not a sustainable way of winning games either.
For the third straight season, the running game is an issue for USC. The Trojans are averaging 174.0 rushing yards per game, although they do have five touchdowns on the ground in just two contests. Three players have handled the majority of the carries thus far, but Markese Stepp, Stephen Carr, and Malepai have yet to really stand out. Stepp is leading the lead team with 135 rushing yards.
Meanwhile, Kedon Slovis has picked things up from his sterling debut campaign and leads the Pac-12 with 353.0 passing yards per game. Volume (98 attempts, 70 completions) certainly has something to do with that, but you also can't blame offensive coordinator Graham Harrell for calling a lot of pass plays when he has Slovis and a talented, deep collection of wide receivers to throw to. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, and London have each recorded at last a dozen receptions already, while freshman Bru McCoy also has made an instant impact. But Harrell also knows that he needs to find a way to get more production from his running game if this offense is to reach its full potential.
On the other side, defense is a big reason why Utah has won the Pac-12 South the last two seasons, but that side of the ball is undergoing a complete makeover. Just two starters return for the Utes on defense — defensive end Mika Tafua and linebacker Devin Lloyd. The other nine listed on the depth chart have a combined 30 starts among them, and none of them come from the five-man secondary. These inexperienced defensive backs will be tested right out of the gate by Slovis and Co.
When Utah Has the Ball
Entering this season there was plenty unknown about the Utes' offense, as head coach Kyle Whittingham was tasked with replacing three-year starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, the school's all-time leading rusher. And that was before the offseason and preseason were interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, which also gave Utah more practice time in place of their first two games.
There's still uncertainty about who will even be available to play against USC, but the state of the Utes' offense can perhaps best be summed up by the observation that five positions on the depth chart released by the school have "OR" listed with them. That includes quarterback, which has Drew Lisk Jr., Jake Bentley, and Cameron Rising, in that order. Bentley, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, has by far the most experience of the trio, as he started 33 games for the Gamecocks.
A typical hallmark of Whittingham's team is an effective running game, but with no clear-cut replacement for Moss, Utah will employ a by-committee approach out of the backfield and the distribution of carries may come down to which running back has the hot hand, or is simply available. Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore are listed as co-starters on the depth chart. They combined for 457 yards and three touchdowns last season as complementary options to Moss (led Pac-12 with 1,416 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns) and Huntley (290 yards, 5 touchdowns).
One thing the Utes need to try and capitalize on is the Trojans' persistent problem with penalties. In just two games, USC already has been assessed 16 penalties for 160 yards. Cornerback Chris Steele has been especially prone to drawing a yellow flag, in part due to his aggressive style of play. With reliable pass catchers in tight end Brant Kuthie and wide receivers Britain Covey and Bryan Thompson, whoever ends up under center would be wide to target them when they are open.
Utah's finally ready to make its season debut, but that doesn't mean the Utes are done with COVID-19 just yet. Whittingham said yesterday that about 70 percent of his roster is available for Saturday's game and that filling out a depth chart is going to be a challenge if more players aren't cleared leading up to kickoff. But as long as Utah doesn't take another step backward, it does appear that Utah will have enough players to give it a go, which in itself is a victory.
But the Utes' roster issues will only enhance the apparent advantage USC will have from a personnel and talent standpoint. The Trojans already have two games under their belt and are pretty healthy, while Utah hasn't been whole for weeks and hasn't been able to even practice under normal circumstances. The last three visits to Rice-Eccles Stadium have not gone USC's way, but as long as the Trojans can avoid turnovers and cut down on the costly penalties, they should win going away.
Prediction: USC 31, Utah 20
Podcast: Week 12 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.