This was supposed to be the biggest night in the history of Utah football. Long ago circled by fans as a statement game against a program many predicted would play for the national championship, Thursday night's game has certainly taken on a less than thrilling outlook the past few weeks
Don't get me wrong, this is still a big and important contest for the Utes and there is not one fan who wouldn't love to beat the Trojans in Rice-Eccles Stadium ... especially after how this season started. But back when the schedule was announced, back when we realized Utah would be playing USC on a Thursday night on ESPN, back when the Trojans were number one nationally and the Utes had nothing but high expectations in front of them ... back then, this was the game to end all games.
USC is not number one anymore. They're not even a top-ten team. They're definitely good and they're definitely talented, but on the whole, the buzz surrounding this game is not near the level we all anticipated a few months ago. From Utah's point of view, that might not be such a bad thing solely because I just don't think they could hang, let alone beat, a title-contending USC team. The fact they're a bit underwhelming so far this season does make the Trojans a tad more vulnerable and for the struggling Utes, it gives them a chance.
So, I guess the question now is whether they stand a real chance or if this is just a token one to make us all feel better. That I don't know. As much as I've tried to get a feel for this game, outside expecting Utah to probably not win, I can see it being very close and I can see USC walking in and winning by 21. I can also see the Utes surprising and actually winning. But for that latter feeling to happen, it will take a near-perfect game from the team and a performance we probably haven't seen yet this season.
Offensively, there has to be improvement over the last two games. The Trojans only give up, on average, 17 points per game, which ranks 3rd in the Pac-12 and 28th nationally. It's not remarkably stellar, at least statistically, but holding a team to 17 points or less is almost always good for victory ... especially against an offense like Utah's, which is second to last in the Pac-12 in points per game and pretty much only propped up by a 41-0 victory over Northern Colorado. Take that game out of the equation and the Utes are only averaging 17 points, which would put them at the bottom of the country and right at the level USC has held teams, on average, this season.
Can Utah win scoring 17 points Thursday?
Probably not. While the Utes' defense is good, and certainly has been the strength of past Utah teams, this season, they've given up more than 17 points in all but one game and that one game was, of course, against a bad Northern Colorado program. That's what is so damaging about this offense. Their scoring output right now, at least against FBS teams, is less than their defensive average and that generally does not bode well - especially when you consider USC averages 33 points per game.
That shouldn't be a surprise, though, because we knew the Trojans had talent on offense. They still have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Matt Barkley and a strong group of receivers. Still, it's not all rosy for this offense. Robert Woods, who has the potential to be a very damaging offensive weapon, has struggled and hasn't seen the type of production many expected prior to the start of the season. A lot of this is because Barkley's favorite receiver this season has been Marqise Lee, who's solidly outperforming Woods right now. But the fact Woods hasn't really been the focal point of this offense yet, something the coaches want to change, is a concern mostly because you kind of expect a breakout performance sooner rather than later. You know the possibility is there and you've got to wonder if sooner is this Thursday.
To be sure, though, USC does have a lot of questions, especially on the offensive end. In their victory against Cal, they decided to establish the running game and it was effective, as they rushed for a shade under 300 yards. But that came at the expense of their passing attack, which only accounted for 192 yards. It's not an awful stat, and when you consider they put up 488 yards of offense, it becomes clearer they didn't really need to utilize the passing game, but that's because they've been limited, pretty much the whole season, in their passing offense.
USC ranks 46th nationally in passing yards per game and 55th in completion percentage, just a spot above Utah. Those are not the type of numbers Trojan fans expected when the season began, especially with Woods, Lee and Randall Telfer returning and a potential Heisman winning quarterback leading it all. For whatever reason, whether it's schematic or coaching, this offense has not lived up to expectations, especially when you consider last year when the Trojans ranked 8th in completion percentage, 15th in passing yards per game and 17th in points per game.
That means one of two things for Thursday ... either USC is going to solidify itself as questionable on offense and Utah will actually have a legitimate shot in this one, or the Trojans are due for an explosive output that shames each and every naysayer.
I know which one you want and you know which one I want ... but which one will be reality? What outcome can we really expect this Thursday? Gosh, guys, I really wish I had an answer, but as I said at the beginning of this preview, it's just really hard for me to get a read on this game.
On one hand, the Utes have looked abysmal on offense and their defense really showed some holes against the Sun Devils a week ago. On the other, this is at home against a team still trying to find themselves and you can never, ever count out a Kyle Whittingham-coached team when their backs are against the wall.
That alone gives me hope.
If Utah is going to win Thursday, they need to put together their best performance of the season. That means the offense has to get some movement. It cannot survive by stalling out drive after drive. There needs to be points because even with how questionable the Trojan offense might seem, their defense is still capable enough of shutting Utah out.
The bottom line, as it's been for much of this season, I am infinitely more concerned with this offense than the defense. I believe the defense will be fired up for this one after their last performance, but it won't mean a lick if the offense continues to struggle. It won't mean a lick if the Utes can't get something going through the air. It won't mean a lick if the offensive line fails to hold up and create holes ... and it won't mean a lick if John White IV or Kelvin York can't consistently move the chains on the ground.
While this game might not hold nearly the level of importance as many of us had hoped it would in the preseason, it's still an important moment for the program. They need to compete, even if they don't win because in almost every big conference game so far, Utah has lost and in some instances, lost badly. There needs to be some evidence the Utes are at least competitive with the better teams in the Pac-12 and right now, that evidence just isn't there. They got steamrolled three times last year and have already been de-pantsed this season. That can't continue.
So, while I don't think they need to win this game, it would be nice if they at least showed up and gave the Trojans everything they had. It's cliched, but it continues to ring true, Utah needs to leave it all on the field. If they do that, even in defeat, I think many of us will feel better not just about this season, but the future of this program.