Sam Darnold and the Trojans host the Utes in a game that could end up deciding the Pac-12 South title
The No. 13 Trojans (5-1, 3-1 Pac-12) will be seeking revenge after a 31-27 loss to the Utes kept them out of the Pac-12 title game a year ago. USC is on a roll with Sam Darnold at the controls. The sophomore has thrown for 1,705 yards and 12 touchdowns while completing 64.8 percent of his passes — although he has also thrown a Pac-12-worst nine interceptions.
For Utah (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12), a second straight win over the Trojans would mark a huge step forward in its efforts to claim a solo Pac-12 South title for the first time. The Utes tumbled out of the AP Poll after falling 23-20 at home to Stanford last weekend. Another loss to USC would make getting to the Pac-12 championship game an uphill climb.
USC holds a 10-5 lead in the all-time series with Utah. The Utes have won two of the last three meetings, but they haven't prevailed in Los Angeles since 1916.
Utah at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: USC –12.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Fourth-quarter fireworks
Finishing strong is a USC trait this season. The fourth quarter has belonged to the Trojans in almost every game they've played so far. USC has outscored opponents 79-48 in the final 15 minutes and hasn't allowed any opponent to score more than 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Seven of USC's fourth-quarter touchdowns have come on the ground, as the Trojans have been able to wear down opponents, for the most part, going into the final quarter. Only Texas has held USC under 100 rushing yards in a game this season.
Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr have provided an effective one-two punch in the backfield. Jones has churned out 529 yards and seven touchdowns on 85 carries, while Carr has totaled 309 yards and three scores on 52 carries. Jones currently ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing average (6.22 yards per carry) and total rushing yards.
If USC can control the fourth quarter against Utah, it would offer a stark reversal of what has unfolded in recent seasons. The Trojans' last two losses to the Utes came as a result of Utah punching in game-winning touchdowns in the final seconds, although in 2016, the Trojans used the loss as a springboard to a nine-game winning streak to finish the season.
“We know this is the game that held us out of playing for a Pac-12 title,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “To lose that game last year in the last 16 seconds was heartbreaking for our football team, but I thought (it) really set the tone for the rest of the season.”
2. Can Utah's offense take a step forward?
Life without Tyler Huntley finally caught up to Utah on offense against Stanford. The Utes struggled to finish drives against the Cardinal and turned the ball over on back-to-back fourth-quarter plays while the outcome remained in doubt.
Senior quarterback Troy Williams (above, right) shouldered much of the blame. Williams passed for 238 yards and a touchdown on a 20-of-39 passing but also tossed two fourth-quarter interceptions. He made poor reads at times, missing a wide-open Darren Carrington on multiple plays. Williams also got sacked on third down two different times after Utah had moved the ball inside the Stanford 5-yard line, forcing the Utes to settle for field goals.
“I just felt like I was a little out of whack,” Williams said. “Just didn't play well. I felt like I prepared to the best of my ability. My body felt good. It just wasn't my night.”
His performance drew frustration from Utah coach Kyle Whittingham after the game. Whittingham hinted that Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman could get a shot to show what he can do this week if Williams can't improve on his reads and decision making.
Since filling in for Huntley, Williams has completed only 50.9 percent of his passes. The offense has produced just three touchdowns in the last seven quarters with Williams at quarterback.
3. Defensive line battle
Both Utah and USC have a reputation for being strong in the defensive trenches. The story this season is no different.
For the Utes, it shows in their run defense. Utah ranks in the top 20 nationally in run defense. The Utes allow just 108.8 rushing yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. Utah's front four did a good job of bottling up Bryce Love for three quarters last Saturday, until he broke through for a back-breaking 68-yard TD run in the fourth quarter. Ute playmakers have made the most of the pressure created by the line. Linebacker Sunia Tauteoli leads the team in tackles (36) and tackles for a loss (7.5). Nine different players have recorded a sack this season, led by Kylie Fitts and Bradlee Anae with two apiece.
USC's impact up front is felt in the turnover battle. The Trojans are the Pac-12 co-leader in both turnovers gained (15) and interceptions (9). Their pass rush creates enough sustained pressure on opposing quarterbacks that it leads to a flurry of bad decisions. Linebackers and linemen alike are freed up to make more disruptive plays as a result. Christian Rector, Josh Fatu, Rasheem Green and Porter Gustin all have three or more sacks for USC. Green, Rector and Cameron Smith all have six tackles for a loss.
Utah hasn't won a true road game over USC in more than a century. The Utes are facing a Trojans squad hit hard by the injury bug, especially along the offensive line, but Utah isn't in a great position to take advantage. The Utes are also dealing with injuries to their starting quarterback, Huntley, and their top pass rusher, Fitts. Utah's defense is good enough that USC won't run away with this one, but its offense likely can't match the Trojans in production.
Prediction: USC 27, Utah 23
— 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.