Utah football's won plenty of games in Los Angeles and Orange Counties — just none at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Such is the theme of the No. 10-ranked Utes' Friday night visit to face a USC team, coming off a surprising Week 3 loss at BYU.
The Trojans' offense crashed to earth in Provo after a week flying high and in the Top 25. USC has too many weapons not to rebound, but is being asked to do so against one of the very best defenses in college football. This is indeed a showdown of contrasting styles; one that's vexed the other side in recent years.
One of Utah's most problematic opponents since joining the Pac-12 has been Washington State, which runs a version of the air raid comparable to USC's new look. In contrast, the issues USC faced with BYU's physical style in Week 3 aren't exclusive to that contest; and they don't let up in Week 4.
Utah at USC
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 20 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: Utah -3.5
When Utah Has the Ball
The 2018 season concluded with Utah reaching its first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game, but also plagued with a lingering question of "what if?" What if quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss weren't injured in the same week of the final month of the regular season? Backups Jason Shelley and Armand Shyne played admirably in Huntley and Moss' absence — Shyne dominated in a key win over Oregon, and Shelley put on an instant classic, second-half performance against BYU — but the Utes offense wasn't the same for most of the final third of the season.
Before those injuries, Utah rolled off its first four-game stretch scoring 40-plus points since the undefeated 2004 squad under Urban Meyer. Among those efforts was a 41-28 win over USC, which played out much less competitively than the final score indicates. Utah dominated behind Huntley's 341 yards passing and four touchdowns, in what might have been his most impressive demonstration throwing the deep ball to date.
New faces abound in the Trojans secondary compared to a year ago, but the unit may be without Greg Johnson. He is in concussion protocol. Also questionable is the heart of USC's defense, end Christian Rector. The talented Rector missed last week's 30-27 loss at BYU, and the absence of his pass-rush ability was evident in Zach Wilson's performance for the Cougars.
Applying pressure to Huntley is one key for the Trojans; so, too, is edge containment. USC struggled with quarterback runs from Fresno State dual-threat playmaker Jorge Reyna, and it's a point to watch Friday. The Trojans held BYU to 3.3 yards per carry in Week 3, but running back Ty'Son Williams posted 5.2 on 19 carries. Moss will similarly hammer at the USC front between the tackles, while receivers Demari Simpkins and Britain Covey spread the field to the sidelines.
When USC Has the Ball
The air-raid look first-year offensive coordinator Graham Harrell implemented showed its best side in Week 2 when true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis skewered Stanford for 377 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-20 romp. Last week at BYU, the worst side of the pass-heavy attack showed up when Slovis threw three interceptions.
USC needs Slovis to return to his Week 2 form, and he's expected to do so against what might be the best defense in the Pac-12. Utah's status as the preseason favorite in the South division rested heavily on the veteran presence returning from a defense that held opponents to 19.4 points and a hair over 100 rushing yards per game a season ago. The Utes' defensive line is particularly noteworthy with end Bradlee Anae coming in averaging a sack a game, tackle Leki Fotu — who wreaked havoc against USC in 2018 — with 2.5 tackles for a loss, and Mika Tafua, Maxs Tupai, and John Penisini all contributing to yielding just 65 rushing yards per game.
Establishing the run for USC is important, too, despite the common misconception held about the air raid. The Trojans have been balanced through three games of Harrell's offense, even rushing more than passing. Against one of the nation's best defenses, they'll have to do so with leading ball-carrier Vavae Malepeai having been shaken up in the fourth quarter last week, and just getting short-yardage thumper Markese Stepp back from a calf injury.
The passing attack is most effective with balanced ball distribution. And though arguably USC's most talented player, Michael Pittman, really got cooking for the first time in 2019 at BYU, Amon-Ra St. Brown catching just one pass for four yards noticeably hamstrung the Trojans. Utah's secondary boasts perhaps the best defensive back in the conference, Jaylon Johnson, so how he matches up could be one of Friday's most important storylines.
A road game against a quality opponent on a Friday night looms ahead for the highest-ranked Pac-12 team. If that doesn't sound like the classic, College Football Playoff-denying scenario that's hounded the conference in recent years, you haven't been paying attention. A similar scenario ostensibly doomed USC's playoff hopes in 2017, when the Trojans lost on a Friday night at Washington State.
Last year, the Cougars — who finished the season 11-2 and would have faced a Utah team they already beat in the regular season in a hypothetical Pac-12 Championship Game — dropped a Friday night game at the Coliseum.
Factoring this, as well as Utah's struggles at the Coliseum, plenty of cosmic forces work against the Utes. At the same time, this might be Kyle Whittingham's best team since the 2009 Sugar Bowl winners — maybe better. The offense holds the potential to be the best of his tenure, and the defense is the program's most collectively talented. The 2019 Utes are an awful lot like the '18 Utes who shelled USC, only a year more experienced.
USC's offense isn't as inconsistent as it looked against BYU, but the Cougars' defense isn't as good as Utah's, either.
Prediction: Utah 31, USC 27
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.