Utah (3-0, 0-0 Pac-12) and USC (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) square off tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. MT at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. It will be the first matchup between Pac-12 teams in 2016. Last season Utah and USC finished tied atop the Pac-12 South standings at the end of the season with identical 6-3 records in conference, so USC's 42-24 win over the Utes in L.A. proved to be the tiebreaker that sent the Trojans to the Pac-12 Championship Game over the Utes. USC is already in a 0-1 hole in Pac-12 play after falling to Stanford 27-10 last Saturday while the Utes open Pac-12 play after starting 3-0 in nonconference games. With three games in the books for both teams, we have learned a bit about each team, which led us to come up with these keys to the game.
Can one team start fast?
In the six games Utah and USC have played this year, the two teams have combined to score only one offensive touchdown in the first quarter of those games (it was scored by USC against Utah State). A fast start by USC would likely force the Utah offense to pass more than they might like. Utah quarterback Troy Williams has flashed tons of potential this season, but he also has made mistakes typical of new starting quarterbacks, namely throwing interceptions because he has throw. Into tight coverage. USC will also be giving redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold his first start. Starting fast would likely boost the new starter's confidence and might take the raucous crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium out of the game a bit. Conversely, a fast start by the Utes would amp up the pressure on Darnold and would pump up the crowd. With all of the reports coming out about turmoil within the USC program and a disappointing 1-2 start to the season, one has to wonder what the mindset of the USC players would be if they were to find themselves down big early on in a hostile environment. How this game starts will likely tell us a lot about the mindset of this USC team: do they band together and come out firing or do they let the off-the-field distractions impact their performance negatively on the field?
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham always says turnover margin is the second-most important stat in football after the final score. Utah has shown this season they are adept at creating takeaways (they are tied for second in the Pac-12 with eight behind only Washington's 10 and tied with Arizona). Utah has also struggled to hang onto the football though, turning it over nine times (which is dead last in the Pac-12), making the Utes -1 in turnover margin. The Trojans have more than enough talent to make Utah pay if they turn over the football. USC is tied for fourth in the conference with only three turnovers, which is impressive given the Trojans have faced Alabama and Stanford this season. The Trojans are ninth in the Pac-12 with four takeaways so far this season. In otherwise close games, turnovers can have a huge impact on who wins the game. Do not be surprised if the team that wins the turnover margin also wins the game.
Battle in the Trenches
Utah likely has the best defensive line in the Pac-12, and USC likely has the best offensive line. This strength on strength battle should prove to be key in this game. It is a matchup between two of the best players in the conference at their respective positions: USC offensive tackle Zach Banner and Utah defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei. The Utah offensive line has not performed up to preseason expectations so far this season but does seem to be improving every game. The USC defensive line ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (though do remember they played Alabama and Stanford, two excellent rushing offensives). USC is tied for eighth in the conference in sacks with five while Utah leads the Pac-12 with 15. This will be a physical football game between two teams that want to establish a rushing attack and want to stop the other from being able to run the football. Utah is sixth in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (169.3) and eighth in yards per carry (4.38) while USC is dead last in the conference in rushing yards per game (119.7) and 11th in yards per carry (3.59), though USC has improved every game in yards per carry. Can the USC offensive line open holes for USC’s talented stable of running backs against a stout Utah defensive line? This will be key for the Trojans with a new starting quarterback. Can Utah establish their will at the line of scrimmage and get their three-headed rushing attack established early and often? They will need to control the clock to keep USC’s dangerous offensive playmakers like wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster among others off the field. Football games are often won or lost in the trenches. The battle between the USC offensive line and the Utah defensive line should be one of the most physical match ups between Pac-12 teams all year, and it could go a long way in deciding who wins this game.
It’s going to be a chilly September blackout at Rice Eccles for the first in conference challenge Utah football will face. While the Utes have been on an upward progression through the first three games, the USC Trojans seem to have an endless drama filled saga on and off the field. If Utah can take advantage of the commotion they have a great chance of winning out. Here’s how the Utes can do it:
1. Hone in on the new quarterback
If starting your first game as a college freshman quarterback is a challenge, then imagine starting your first game as a freshman quarterback four games into the season in elevated Utah during a probable first of fall chilly rainstorm. This will be the scenario for the Trojan’s Sam Darnold in the matchup against the Utes. While Darnold has seen some playing time throughout the first few games this is a bold move by USC’s Coach Helton and could prove to end in Lane Kiffin-ish fashion if it doesn’t fair well for the team. Helton’s hope is that Darnold, who is considered a dual threat, can spark the USC offense with his athletic running ability. The key for the Utes defense will be to continue doing their thing by overwhelming USC’s offensive line into making the same mistakes we have seen from them this season: false starts, throwaways, penalties and receiver coverage. This will lead to the opportunity to get after Darnold.
2. Continue to force turnovers
“Sack Lake City.” “Pick Lake City.” There is a reason why Utah football has found nicknames for its aggressive defense and it is overly obvious in glaring stats on turnovers. Currently the Utes sit at the top of the PAC-12 charts in both sacks and interceptions and find themselves in the number two spot in the nation for sacks only one sack away from tying Florida. Last week against San Jose State the Utes had 10 sacks and two interceptions bringing their season totals to 15 sacks and six interceptions. Going into week four the Trojans have been able to maintain a record of three turnovers all coming in the form of interceptions and this week’s starting quarterback, Sam Darnold only accounts for one of those. This is telling of the Trojan’s ability to protect the football given their first matchup of the season was against a solid defense in Alabama. It is an absolute must that the Utes are able to force turnovers this game to seal a win.
3. More touchdowns less field goals
While still very flawed, last we saw progress in ball protection for the Utah offense from both the running backs and the quarterback. Both Troy Williams and Troy McCormick accounted for one interception and one fumble in the second half, but as bad as this sounds it is much better than the six turnovers the Utah offense allowed in the previous week versus BYU. More concerning than the interception thrown by Williams is the location it occurred which was in the end zone. So far this season Utah has struggled in the red zone and last week had to settle for field goals in 50% of opportunities in the red zone. Don’t get me wrong Automatic Andy Phillips is a valuable asset to this team but over the past few years we have seen the Trojans come from behind after halftime against the Utes and field goals are not going to get the job done.
While it would definitely be a mistake to overlook a 1-2 USC team that has lost to two teams that currently rank first and seventh in the AP poll, I think that Utah can come away with this one.