Pac-12 South teams whose seasons have not started the way they were hoping will face off Saturday night when Utah comes to Los Angeles to face USC.
The Trojans (3-2, 2-2 Pac-12) found a way to get it together last week, putting a 37-14 beatdown on Colorado in Boulder. The margin of victory could have been even larger if not for a few mistakes. Even with the win, USC's season still looks like the team has whiplash when you look at the schedule. Win. Loss. Win. Loss. Win. Will the Trojans find a way to end this pattern? As it stands, the 2021 version is currently looking like a six- or seven-win team.
The Utes (2-2, 1-0) aren't faring too much better. They began the year with high hopes after adding Baylor transfer quarterback Charlie Brewer. That lasted all of two weeks. After he was benched for poor play against Washington State, Brewer left the program, leaving the starting job to Cameron Rising. Utah is just .500 overall but won its conference opener two weeks ago against Washington State, so it’s entirely possible the Utes will emerge as a threat to win the division. Defeating USC in the Coliseum, something the Utes haven't done in more than 100 years, would be a great place to start.
Even though it's only early October, this game could determine how the rest of the season goes for both teams, regardless of which one wins on Saturday night.
Utah at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -3
When Utah Has the Ball
USC has a good idea of what to expect when it comes to playing the Utes. Head coach Kyle Whittingham always has his team ready to play the Trojans. The Utes are physical enough to match up with any team, and their defense is good enough to stop an explosive offense like USC's. The question for Utah has always been and remains what happens when it has the ball.
With Brewer's departure, Rising, another Big 12 transfer (Texas), takes over at quarterback. He replaced an ineffective Brewer when the Utes played San Diego State on Sept. 18 and led a fourth-quarter rally that saw Utah send the game into overtime with two late touchdowns. The Aztecs went on to win in triple overtime, but Rising staked his claim to the starting job with three touchdown passes after taking with a little more than five minutes left in the third quarter. The following week against Washington State, Rising threw for just 137 yards (on 13-of-23 passing), but he didn't turn the ball over as the Utes won 24-13.
Utah doesn't need Rising to put up big numbers, but he will need to make enough plays with his arm to keep the Trojans' defense honest and make good decisions when he throws. The more important aspect for Utah is its running game, which got 117 yards and a touchdown from TJ Pledger in the win over the Cougars. Between Pledger, Tavion Thomas (6.4 ypc), and Micah Bernard (team-leading 253 yds.), the Utes have several options to employ against a USC defense that's giving up 142 rushing yards per game (eighth in Pac-12).
When USC Has the Ball
Well, it largely depends on who the starting quarterback is for USC. The Trojans had to stick with Kedon Slovis after Jaxson Dart went down with a torn meniscus. The all-time best debut for a USC quarterback in school history was a hell of a way to announce yourself, and it has fans clamoring for more. At this point, they know what Slovis can and can’t do. Dart represents a different, more mobile dynamic while still retaining all the passing traits one could ever ask for from a quarterback.
If Dart is on the field, he can stretch the game with his legs and his arm. The Trojans needs to stretch the field. They have incredible athletes, and when schools have to play catch-up with USC, the Trojans turn into must-watch television. The problem is stability. They can occasionally produce those explosive moments like Dart did against Wazzu, but then they follow it up with a performance like Oregon State.
Whoever is at quarterback will try to solve a Utah defense that may not be playing up to its typical elite level, but is still pretty good. The Utes are second in the Pac-12 in total defense (304.0 ypg) and rank third against the pass (163.5 ypg). If anything, this Utah defense seems more vulnerable to the run (140.5 ypg) but hasn't really been a trademark for USC for some time. This season, the Trojans are averaging 137.4 rushing yards per game, which places them eighth in the conference.
Picking USC has been super problematic this year. I went against my gut a couple of times and I hated myself for it in the end. The gut says Utah is focused and prepared enough to beat a Trojans team with an interim head coach still trying to put together a consistent program. Whittingham’s experience and his talent should be enough to put the Utes over the top.
Prediction: Utah 34, USC 27
Podcast: Week 6 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.