"It was good to close out non-conference play with a win. We were able to go 3-0 in non-conference play, which is obviously the objective, so that was taken care of on Saturday night at San Jose [State]. It's on to Pac-12 play the rest of the way now. It starts with USC this Friday, a big game at our place. They're all big games in the Pac-12 Conference so we have to be at our best. They're a very talented team, probably the most talented 1-2 team in the country. They're very dangerous and have a lot of weapons. They're physical, fast and well-coached. It's going to be a big challenge for our football team. They got us last year at their place. We were 6-0 at the time and they were able to stop our momentum last year so we're going to try to play better this year, that's for sure. We turned the ball over quite a bit against them last year, we had three interceptions to one linebacker, Cameron Smith, who's a very good player. We have to try to not let that happen again. It's a short week so we'll be on the field practicing today. Today is kind of a Monday/Tuesday hybrid day and then tomorrow will be Wednesday [of a typical Saturday game week] and so forth throughout the rest of the week until kickoff on Friday night. It might be raining. It's supposed to cold and rainy, 50 degrees, with a 70 percent chance of rain so weather may be a factor, we'll see."
The Utah football team has had to deal with multiple injuries already during this season.
"We're missing a lot of guys, but it's a loser's game to worry about injuries, talk about them and use them as excuses. We never do that. We have a next man up mentality and that's where we're at."
Ball security has been a huge focus for the team.
"We just keep preaching it and keep stressing it, which we always do. That's nothing new, but that has been our biggest issue to this point in the season, turnovers and particularly turnovers in the red zone. We were a little bit better on Saturday night than we were the week before, but still not good enough at finishing drives overall and in particular not missing out on opportunities to score points in the red zone. It's something that will continue to be a point of emphasis and we'll just keep coaching as best we can."
Utah has USC up next on Friday. They may not have a good record, but they are always one of the most talented teams in the country.
"They're extremely talented, like I mentioned. They have as good of personnel as anyone in the country. The receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is a tremendous talent. It seems like they have six or seven running backs who are all really, really good. They have a whole stable of backs. The offensive line has size and athleticism. The defense is physical and the secondary is what you get from them every year, just a lot of talented guys back there."
True freshman running back Zack Moss is starting to get healthy after missing much of fall camp with an injury.
"He's close to full health. He's obviously healthy enough to play a bunch of snaps like he did last week, but still hasn't caught up from missing that big chunk of time during fall camp yet. He should be better this week as far as the health and endurance. He should be better this week than last, it should be an upward trend barring any setbacks."
In USC’s last game, they lost 27-10 at Stanford.
"Stanford is very sound and physical on defense. Stanford does not beat itself. They're a very smart football team as well as sound in their fundamentals and techniques with some physicality. That's who they are. They do a great job. They know who they are. Like I said, you have to beat Stanford, they're not going to beat themselves. They played very well against USC."
The offensive line received a lot of hype in the preseason. They are not yet performing up to that expectation but are getting “closer.”
"Closer is the operative word. We're not there yet, but I think we've made incremental steps each week though the course of the season with the 'o line' and with the running backs for that matter. We're still not where we need to be to be the type of team we want to be, but we're a lot closer than we were in game one and it's good to see all those running backs contribute. We did have the one fumble with a running back, but to have [Armand] Shyne and Moss come alive and contribute like they did was good to see. We needed that to happen. With Joe Williams gone now, that had to happen."
The secondary has played well so far this season, especially cornerback Reggie Porter and safety Marcus Williams.
"That's back to back impressive games now for Reggie Porter. He's played very well. Marcus [Williams] had that really nice interception when we dialed up a blitz and we were in man, zero coverage and he stepped in front of his guy on a slant route then took it away. That was a very athletic move and I think the secondary is playing really well. We're in the top 10 in the nation in pass defense efficiency, which is really the number we look at to see how we're performing in the secondary. We look at our efficiency rating because it's not the number of yards you give up every game, it's how efficient you are, and so far they've done a really nice job. That also is because of the defensive line, the pressure we get up front goes hand in hand."
Senior wide receiver Tim Patrick has two 100-yard receiving games already this season.
"He's a talent first of all. He has the whole package for a wide receiver. He has size. He's 6-5. He can run. He has exceptional hands. He runs crisp routes, he's a good route runner. He works hard, his practice habits are second to none. He works really hard in practice. It's no surprise to us that he is performing the way he is. We were expecting and hoping for that last year, but he wasn't available. There was a question every week about whether he was going to be ready or was he not. As it turns out, I guess it was a blessing that he wasn't because now we have him this year for the entire year. He's been making the most out of it so far. He's definitely been our go-to guy to this point in the season."
Utah’s approach will not change entering Pac-12 play.
"Well, there's no shift in our approach. Our practice routine, regimen and approach all remain the same. That remains intact so we don't prepare any differently. We don't do anything different within our system. If we want to try to challenge for that Pac-12 South Division title, this is the first step in that regard. Non-conference games obviously don't have any bearing on that so this is step one in a challenge for our team to try to be chasing that championship."
The offense also has also started to perform better but still has some way to go.
"It's kind of like the question I answered about the o-line. The offense in general is pretty much in that same category. We've seen incremental progress each week. I think we've taken a step forward each week overall, although our deficiency in finishing drives is still there. That hasn't been cleaned up totally. Troy [Williams] is starting to settle in. We're executing just a little bit better each week. To make us become who we want to become offensively, we have to start finishing drives. That's really the last piece to the puzzle because we ran the ball efficiently on Saturday, over 200 yards. We're throwing the ball much better than we have in the last couple of years, but we have to improve the red zone production and taking care of the football, particularly in the red zone."
Cory Butler-Byrd made his season debut at San Jose State after serving a two-game suspension.
"He had a very positive impact on that game. He caught five balls and unfortunately didn't get a chance to return any kickoffs. We have him back there on kickoff return now, but I thought for the limited time he had to prepare and get ready, he made an impact and did some good things. He's going to be a big part of the game plan every week going forward. That gives us one more dimension out there that can complement Tim Patrick."
The Utah coaches feel they have three players that can start at offensive tackle, including sophomore Jackson Barton.
"We view him as a starter. We feel we have three starting offensive tackles. Sam [Tevi] wasn't available last week. We think [Tevi], Garett [Bolles] and Jackson [Barton] are all very good players. We don't have any reservation whatsoever about putting [Barton] in. In fact, he's in the rotation so he gets just about as many snaps as the other two. All three are very good. We don't really see any marked difference with any one in particular. They're all contributing."
The Utah defense forced 10 sacks against San Jose State, and much of that was due to pressure from the defensive line.
"Well first of all, our defensive line is a good group. They're talented, physical and we felt going into the season that they were going to be a strong suit for us and that's proving to be the case. They were a little bit quiet the first week, but they're starting to make some more noise. Coach [Morgan] Scalley is more inclined to dial up pressure than what we did last year. I mentioned during fall camp that [former defensive coordinator] Coach [John] Pease is more of a four-man rush and get it done with coverage in the back end where Coach Scalley is more willing and eager to bring five or more a higher percentage of the time so that's what you've seen so far. You can't do that unless the secondary holds up. The key to being able to bring pressure is that you have to have confidence in your secondary and so far that secondary has held up very well."
Senior defensive tackle Pasoni Tasini has played well so far this season. With Kylie Fitts out for the season with a foot injury, Utah has started to move defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi to defensive end on some plays, partially because Tasini is such a good player.
"First of all, [Tasini] is an outstanding player. He really came into his own last spring. That's when the light switch first went on and he really started to play up to the capabilities that we felt he had when we recruited him. I feel like he'd probably be starting at most power-five schools in the country. We happen to have some really good defensive tackles, but he's played 60 percent of the snaps in the first three games and that's on the up rise. He's going to play a lot this week as well. You saw us play Filipo Mokofisi at end a little bit last week against San Jose State. When that happens, that opens up even more reps for [Tasini] at defensive tackle. It's kind of like the three tackles on offense. It's the same thing on defense. We consider him a starter just like [Mokofisi] and [Lowell Lotulelei]. He gets in there and makes a big contribution for us."
Whittingham has been happy overall with the return game so far this season.
"We've done a pretty good job in the return game. I think we're third or fourth in the conference in raw yardage. You don't look at return yard average, what you look at in the return game is how many yards total that you're able to amass returning punts and we're over 100 yards now. USC is No. 1 in the Pac-12 with close to 200 yards, but we don't encourage [Boobie Hobbs] to take chances back there. There have been a couple times, like the one we fumbled last week that should have been a fair catch situation. The one he picked up on the bounce at San Jose [State] was probably a good decision. It was candy hop and there was enough space there. He's a playmaker. He wants to make big plays, but he has to be judicious in his decision making when he's back there and not put us at risk with a turnover. But he's courageous. He's a fearless, courageous guy. He has a real desire to make big plays. So far this season, other than one turnover, he's done a pretty good job for us."
The USC offense has not changed with the switch to Clay Helton as the head coach, but the defense is different with Clancy Pendergast returning as defensive coordinator, a position he held at USC in 2013 as well.
"Not offensively. The offensive staff is still there, but defensively they have a new coordinator, Clancy Pendergast, who I have a ton of respect for. I think he's one of the top coordinators in the country so you do see some differences in their defensive schemes. In special teams' schemes, John Baxter, who was there two years ago, is now back after taking a one-year deal at Michigan. He's now back. There's a lot of carryover from what we saw two years ago, special teams-wise."
USC has talented running backs, but they have not been successful running the football so far this season.
"It really hasn't gotten on track yet. I really don't know or have a great explanation as to why. I can tell you that Alabama and Stanford are two really good run defense teams, particularly Alabama. That certainly has a lot to do with it. It's not a lack of talent. They have a stable of talent, like I mentioned, and they're physical up front. They have great size and power up front along the offensive line."
USC has played three games, and the coaches have watched all three games in preparing for the Trojans.
"We look at all three games they've played. We take the whole body of work. We don't weigh one any more than the other. You draw from every film and as the season progresses, that's how it works. The body of work that you have to draw from gets bigger and bigger. We draw from it all. As you generate more films as the season goes on, you're going to gravitate towards schemes that are similar to what you do because you feel like this is how they attack an even or odd front or a closed-middle look or a split-safety look. As you amass more film to choose from, then you start picking and choosing a little bit more and it's more scheme-specific."
USC defensive end Porter Gustin is an Elk Ridge, Utah native and was recruited by Utah when he came out of high school.
"He's a good player. He played a bunch last year as a true freshman. He's starting now as a true sophomore and we recruited him hard. We thought he was one of the best players in the state. We would have loved to have had him become a Ute but he chose to go elsewhere. We have a lot of respect for what he does."
USC has played two quarterbacks this season: junior Max Browne and freshman Sam Darnold. Helton announced today that Darnold will be the starter against Utah. Darnold was heavily recruited by Utah when coming out of San Clemente HS.
"Max Browne has been the starter and then [Sam] Darnold is the guy who came in and got some time. Darnold has a really strong arm. He has a really good arm. They have to be searching for ways to get things corrected and that may be something they look at. A quarterback change is obviously their decision. We have to be ready for both of those guys. They're both good athletes. As you look at tape and study, you try to decide what the matchups are that are in your favor then try to gravitate towards matchups rather than schematics in a game like this."
Adoreé Jackson of USC is one of the most dynamic return men in the country. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Utah in Salt Lake City in 2014.
"It's a big challenge. In the punt return game and the kickoff return game, he does them both and he does them both very well. You have to try to keep the ball away from him. He's dangerous. If he gets the ball with a little bit of space, you're in trouble. We have to do a great job with our punt team this week of trying to neutralize that as well as our kickoff coverage because he's as good as there is in the country, may be the best in the country, at returning kicks and punts."
Patrick has been excellent at wide receiver, but the outside receiver position opposite of him is still open.
"It hasn't really solidified yet. Raelon Singleton is a guy who has been out there on the other side. Siaosi Wilson with Demari Simpkins now playing a little bit outside. I can't say that we've settled exactly on who that is going to be yet. We're still trying different combinations. It looks like Cory Butler-Byrd is going to be the H along with Kyle Fulks. Those two guys should get the bulk of the reps there. We haven't settled in completely on the receiver opposite [Patrick] so we'll just see how things play out."
Whittingham was asked how the non-conference schedule prepared his team for Pac-12 play.
"It's tough to say right now. There is still so much football left and you only have a small sampling. We of course faced an FCS team in game one and then two FBS teams so we've handled our business. We haven't played our best football. I don't figure there's any question about that, but we've done what it takes to win. There are a lot of positives that have shown up, but as far as the overall strength, I'd say it's a typical year in that regard."
The defense has to balance a bit between getting interceptions and sacks because different schemes will lead to more of one versus the other.
"A couple of years ago, we led the nation in sacks and didn't have a whole lot of picks and that kind of flipped, the sacks have gotten a little less and picks have been on the incline. To be honest with you, they're both impact plays. Obviously, picks are takeaways so that carries more weight than a sack if you had to pick between the two, but we stress making impact plays on defense: tackles for loss, fumble recoveries, interceptions and sacks. Those are the impact-type plays. We have a percentage goal every week that we try to meet and it's almost like clockwork. If we meet that percentage of impact plays, then we play a very good defensive game. There's a lot of correlation with that so they're both very valuable, like I said, but if I had to choose one or the other, interceptions get us the ball back so that would be more valuable than sacks."
Whittingham reiterated that preparation even for a team as talented as USC is no different than preparing for any other teams.
"You go out and prepare the best you can every week no matter what your circumstances are or what your win-loss record is. They're a good football team. Like I said, they're probably the best 1-2 football team in the country, or one of the best. They're dangerous and we're fully aware of that. We don't really pay attention to their record. We know what they're capabilities are. We're completely aware of how we need to play in order to have a chance to win this game."
Whittingham was asked if there is any extra motivation for this game with happened last year with Utah losing at USC 42-24 when they were undefeated and ranked No. 3.
"There may be a little bit. We're not stressing that we owe them or anything like that. We're just stressing that this is our first conference game and we'd like to get off on a good foot like we did last year against Oregon, which created some momentum. We'd like to create some momentum going into the rest of league play."