The No. 19 Utah Utes (5-1, 2-1 in the Pac-12) welcome the No. 20 USC Trojans (5-2, 4-1 in the Pac-12) to Rice-Eccles Stadium tonight at 8:00 p.m. MT for a big Pac-12 showdown televised on Fox Sports 1. With five ranked teams in the Pac-12 South, every game between Pac-12 South opponents will be key to determining the winner of the muddled division.
"Good football team, very good football team," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said of the visiting Trojans. "They have talent at virtually every position, both sides of the ball."
Utah's struggling passing game (109.0 yards per game in conference) looks to right the ship against a Trojan defense that has struggled at times to stop the pass (308.8 yards per game in conference). It was announced earlier this week that junior quarterback Travis Wilson would get the start for the Utes. Utah has bounced back and forth between Wilson and junior Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson at quarterback this season, with each starting at least one game and both playing in every game. Wilson is the superior passer, and that is a big reason why he will start this week according to Whittingham.
"Travis has thrown the ball a little bit better than Kendal. It's very tight," said Whittingham. "There is a very strong possibility that you'll see Kendal in the game this week as well."
The USC secondary will get a boost with the return of freshman cornerback Adoree Jackson, who aggravated a hip-flexor against Colorado on the opening kickoff of that game.
Utah's defense will have their hands full, as USC has started to get their passing game going. Junior quarterback Cody Kessler (a high school teammate and best friend of Utah linebacker Jared Norris) tossed a school record seven touchdown passes against Colorado last Saturday. Kessler has an 18 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio this season.
"Cody Kessler is playing very well," Whittingham said. "Coming off a great performance against Colorado. We've got our work cut out for us. He's a lot like Connor Halliday that he's a pocket passer, and Sean Mannion, who we just faced. Not real eager to run the ball - not to say that he's not a good athlete, because he is, but he makes his living in the pocket. He's done a nice job of that this year."
As is often the case for USC quarterbacks, Kessler has a bevy of weapons to throw to, including junior wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who had a career-high three touchdown receptions against the Buffaloes. He is joined at receiver by talented freshman JuJu Smith.
Both teams feature elite pass rushes. USC's is led by All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams.
"From the tape I've seen, Leonard Williams is a disruptor," Whittingham said. "He's a guy who demands double teams. He's a very talented football player, and maybe the best defensive lineman in the country. We'll definitely have our hands full with him, and it will be a challenge to make sure we try to somehow get him slowed down a little bit."
Safety/linebacker hybrid Su'a Cravens will also be a player Utah needs to account for during the game. Utah, who leads the nation in sacks with 33, is led by Nate Orchard, who is second in the nation with 10.5 sacks. Both teams have struggled at times protecting their quarterback, with USC allowing 16 sacks and Utah allowing 15 sacks. The team that keeps their quarterback upright better will have a good shot at winning the game.
The game will feature the two premier running backs in the Pac-12, USC's Buck Allen and Utah's Devontae Booker. Allen, a Heisman Trophy contender, is averaging 129.9 yards per game while Booker is averaging 123.7 yards per game. Booker is averaging 6.2 yards per carry; Allen is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. (The last time the Pac-12's top two rushers met in a game was last season when Ka'Deem Carey's Arizona Wildcats took on Bishop Sankey's Washington Huskies in Seattle, with Sankey outrushing Carey en route to a UW win.)
"It will be very pivotal," said Whittingham about the running back clash. "Just about every week, most weeks, football comes down to stopping the run and being able to run. We've got two teams doing a nice job. I think we're rushing for a few more yards per week than they are. Two strong running teams. They are very balanced on offense. They're doing a great job throwing the football with Kessler, and Allen is a terrific back. We've got our own back that we're very high on [Devontae Booker], so that will be an intriguing matchup. That will be a big determiner in the game, is how those guys fare vs. their respective defenses."
When games are close on paper, the difference between who wins and loses can often be because of special teams play. Utah has the best special teams in the nation, led by kicker Andy Phillips, punter Tom Hackett, and kick/punt returner Kaelin Clay. The supporting cast for each of these stars have also been fabulous for the Utes. Special teams is an area where USC has struggled, especially containing kick and punt returns. The Trojans gave up a kick return touchdown against Oregon State and are allowing almost 25 yards per return. USC has given up two punt returns of over 40 yards (but no touchdowns), with an average of over 13 yards per return. Andre Heidari, USC's starting kicker, has missed the last two games with a groin injury.
Utah and USC have had two common opponents this season: Fresno State and Oregon State. Both Utah and USC played Fresno State at home, and both won big (Utah 59-27 and USC 52-13). USC faced Oregon State at home and won 35-10, while Utah won on the road in double overtime, 29-23. Having common opponents can help a little but not much.
"It is somewhat of a measuring stick," Whittingham said. "You can read a little into that."
Tonight is Utah's annual Blackout game, but both teams will be wearing new uniforms. The Utes will feature a new black helmet with an enlarged, chrome drum and feather logo. USC will wear their metallic helmet that they wore last week against Colorado.