Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham addressed the media for his weekly press conference. Utah is 6-0, bowl eligible for the second year in a row and ranked No. 3 in the country. They beat Arizona State for the first time since 1976 and now have to travel to L.A. to face USC.
"I'm proud of the way our guys played on Saturday. They had a determined look in their eye. I could see it before the game and saw it at halftime. They were not going to be denied. They handled the adversity well. We did go through some adversity in that game, as you do in just about every Pac-12 game. They handled it extremely well. Our defense was outstanding. We didn't allow Arizona State to get in the end zone [on offense], but did allow a couple of field goals. The rest of the points can be attributed to special teams' errors. It was a very good job by our defense. On offense, really the key there was to be able to throw the ball. We knew going in that [Arizona State] was going to bring the pressure and they did exactly what we thought they were going to do. Travis [Wilson] and the throwing game responded and put up nearly 300 yards. That really was the biggest key on offense. [Arizona State] did a nice job against Devontae [Booker] for three quarters. He got loose in the fourth quarter and ended up with over 100 yards again, but it was tough sledding for the first three quarters. Overall, it was a good win. We're at the halfway point now of the season and just a third of the way through the Pac-12 season. We're sitting in pretty good shape, but there's still a lot of football left. I'll continue to say that for the next several weeks, but to be able to be up two games in the loss column just three games in doesn't happen often so we're fortunate to be in the spot we're in right now. We have to keep playing. We have a tough opponent this week in USC. I don't think that anyone would argue that year-in and year-out they are the most talented team in the Pac-12 and have a lot of weapons. We have to be at our absolute best this week to have a chance."
As reported earlier today, junior tight end Siale Fakailoatonga is done for the season.
"[Junior tight end] Siale Fakailoatonga is lost for the season. That's a downer. He's a good player and a great kid. It's unfortunate. We'll miss him, but he'll be back next year. He has another year left. We'll just get him better and get him ready for next season."
Running the ball was tough against ASU, and they will now have to face the talented front seven of USC.
"It will be a challenge [against USC]. We knew going in [to the Arizona State game] that they would fill all of the gaps with six-man pressures and play zero coverage behind it. It's tough to run against that. The flip side of that is if you can get through that first wave of pressure, like we did in the fourth quarter a couple of times, then you have a chance for big plays. It was tough [against Arizona State] and it's going to be tough against USC. They have great personnel on defense. Su'a Cravens, the linebacker, is outstanding. Their down guys are athletic and physical. It'll be a challenge for us just like every single week in the Pac-12. We have to continue to run the ball well. The only thing tougher than us running the ball on Saturday was Arizona State trying to run the football. They had 15 yards. Everyone talks about how tough it was for us to run, but our run defense was actually far superior to their run defense."
Whittingham was asked about changes to USC's schemes against Notre Dame under Interim Head Coach Clay Helton.
"I didn't see any marked differences. It's midseason so you're not going to make wholesale changes at this point in the year. They're going to continue to operate very similar to the way they have in the first half of the season, in our opinion."
Utah's run defense was stout against the Sun Devils, allowing only 15 yards for the whole game, a continuation of their strong play all season.
"We've been pretty good on defense for a lot of years, in our opinion. Not to pat ourselves on the back, but that's been something that we take pride in. This year, the defensive front is playing very well against the run. We're No. 1 in the Pac-12 in run defense. The last couple of years we were a little more prolific rushing the passer. This year, it seems to be more of a run-stopping front. We still had five sacks in the game on Saturday. We had some struggles early in the season getting sacks. It all starts up front. Great defense starts at the line of scrimmage and our front has been playing very well this season."
With all the senior leadership, it is not surprising to see how determined this year's team is.
"You could see it at the very beginning of the season. These guys are very mentally tough. They have a great work ethic. They're driven. That stems for great leadership. The seniors on this team have done an outstanding job, and not just the seniors, it has been the leaders in general. We have some underclassmen who are in that category as well. They have a great approach to the game. They're tough. They understand work ethic and how to prepare. Handling adversity is a big part of becoming a good football team. Things happen within the course of every game that aren't going to go your way and you have to fight through them. There's no better example than when had the problem special teams-wise in the last game and it didn't faze them. It didn't faze the offense or the defense. They just kept playing, and if anything, it may have motivated them, particularly the defense.
"I love working with this football team and coaching these guys. I love these guys. I've been coaching here for a lot of years and I can't remember when I've been more excited about what we're doing. The relationships that these guys have with each other is special. It's great to see and great to be a part of."
USC has a lot of talent at wide receiver, highlighted by sophomore JuJu Smith-Schuster.
"We've faced some really good receiving corps several times this season. Is this the best? It very well may be. JuJu Smith-Schuster is leading the conference in receiving yards and he's the go-to guy. He has 39 catches and a bunch of yards. He's a tough matchup. Adoreé Jackson comes over from defense and plays some receiver as well. They have a couple other guys, too. It will be a big challenge for our secondary, but we've been challenged several other times this season and we've responded. We expect the same this week. We expect [our secondary] to respond and play well."
Utah's offense struggled mightily in the last game at USC in 2013, managing only three points.
"I remember that we didn't get much offense going that day. That was our problem. We turned the ball over a bunch of times. As well as our defense played, we didn't really have a chance in that game because we weren't very effective on offense. As far as the circumstances surrounding the game, there are a lot of parallels and similarities [USC was under interim head coach Ed Orgeron], but we can't worry about any of that. We just have to worry about us. It's all about us preparing, getting ready and doing things the right way from our perspective."
Utah is leading the nation in interceptions.
"We have some guys back there with very good ball skills. Probably the most important thing when those opportunities come along is that you capitalize on them. In years past, I've said this before this season, we've had chances, but just didn't capitalize. We dropped the ball. This year, we've taken advantage of just about every opportunity to intercept the football. We haven't dropped very many at all. That's the biggest difference. And we're pretty athletic back there [in the defensive backfield]. We have some guys back there who are very athletic and anticipate well. Marcus Williams, a safety, has four interceptions because he's such an instinctive player and he has great ball skills."
Utah wide receiver Kenneth Scott is in his sixth season at Utah, and he and quarterback Travis Wilson have a confidence in each other.
"Kenneth Scott is a heck of a receiver and we talked about it earlier in the season that we probably haven't been getting him enough targets. We're starting to get him targeted more and he's responding. That one-handed catch he made down the sideline [against Arizona State] was one of the best catches of the season for us, maybe the best catch of the year. He has a lot of ability and he's starting to develop chemistry with Travis [Wilson]. You can see that starting to build. [Wilson] has a lot of confidence in ‘Scotty' and vice versa. He's our guy. He's our leading target on offense and we probably should have, like we talked about earlier in the season, gotten him the ball more and get him targeted more so that's what we're starting to do now."
Utah has now lost two tight ends for the year.
"Harrison Handley steps to the forefront. He's the lead tight end now. Ken Hampel is a guy who's also in the mix. You saw him catch a nice seam route against Arizona State for a 29-yard gain and did a nice job blocking as well, which sometimes goes unnoticed. Wallace Gonzalez is another guy who's going to have to step up now. He's just a freshman, but we think he has a lot of upside. We still consider Caleb Repp a tight end even though we don't do a lot of prototypical tight end things with him. He's a guy who is probably going to have an increased work load as well due to [Fakailoatonga's] departure."
USC has one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Cody Kessler.
"He's so accurate. He's a lot like [Jared] Goff at Cal. He's second in the league right now in passing efficiency, just under 170. He has a great pocket presence. He operates well in the pocket and keeps his eyes down field. He doesn't look down at the rush. That's his strong suit. He's going to be a guy who plays this game for quite a while because of that. At the next level in the NFL, that's the exact style of play that they like."
Utah's safety depth is being tested a bit with an injury to sophomore Andre Godfrey.
"There will be a competition this week to determine the pecking order. Chase [Hansen] has only been there a few days. We had an injury to a safety so he wasn't able to go so we needed to have another guy back there for some depth. [Hansen] is such a natural athlete that we called on him to get that done. My guess is that the more reps [Hansen] gets, the better he'll get. Jason [Thompson] does some good things as well. It will be a good battle between those guys to see who the next safety up will be behind Marcus [Williams] and Tevin [Carter]."
Utah wide receiver Tim Patrick will be the one who decides when and how much he plays depending on how he feels.
"We're really leaving it up to him. It's [based on] his confidence level and how he feels. He's making progress. Every week, he has gotten a little bit better. We thought last week was going to be the week where he actually was going to get some reps, but maybe it's this week. We'll find out. It's really on Tim. Tim is the guy who has to feel that he is right and able to go."
Whittingham was asked whether it is possible to be too ‘cute' in calling trick plays.
"Sometimes it is. The things we've tried earlier in the season were very successful for the most part. The fake punt against Cal that was a penalty was not in that category obviously, but if you look at [the Britain Covey pass on a kickoff return against Arizona State], it was there. The premise of it was very good. As you see it on the film we have as coaches from the end zone, it was a touchdown without question. If you don't execute it, you're idiots. If you do, you get to go on a speaking circuit and write a book about it. It's feast or famine. In hindsight, we wish we wouldn't have run it because it didn't work, but it was flawless in practice. It worked really well in practice. It was well-conceived and it was set up exactly how we wanted it. We just didn't execute it well enough, which means we didn't coach it well enough. If we didn't execute it, we have to do a better job of coaching that up and making sure it has a better chance of success."