For many, USC’s football program represents one of the most successful, glamorous programs in college football.
For the Utah Utes, Thursday’s clash with the Trojans represents something else — a chance to prove they are a better team than the one that was embarrassed at Arizona State.
The prevailing thought, and probable worry among Utah fans is, if Arizona State can rip apart the Utes (2-2, 0-1), what will USC do in Rice-Eccles Stadium?
Not much, is what the Utes are aiming for in the Pac-12 South showdown that will be televised by ESPN.
USC (3-1, 1-1) and Utah were picked to finish one-two in the Pac-12 South and the Utes are determined to show they are that kind of quality team — as much as the No. 13 Trojans probably want to prove they can still be a national title contender.
“We’re going to be on a national stage and we want to go out there and play our best football,” quarterback Jon Hays said. “It’s still early and all the teams in the South [division] top to bottom, can beat anybody. This game is going to be huge in determining who is in the race again.”
The Utes were admittedly in a funk after their loss to ASU, but a bye week, a team meeting to get the players’ refocused plus the anticipation of playing the Trojans in Salt Lake City has the Utes feeling better about themselves.
A year ago the Utes lost to USC 23-14 and could have pushed the Trojans to overtime if Coleman Petersen’s 41-yard field goal wasn’t blocked and returned for a touchdown with 11 seconds remaining.
That close loss proved to the Utes they can hang with USC — even if the Trojans boast an explosive offense led by quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. The new addition this year is running back Silas Redd, a transfer from Penn State.
USC ranks just sixth in the Pac-12 in total offense, averaging 422 yards a game, but the Trojans have the ability to do so much more with Barkley guiding the way, said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
“He is a great player and tough to sack,” he said. “He has a lot of quickness. You can be unblocked and he can still beat you with the throw, he is that quick.”
The Utes know that to beat USC they have to generate more offense than what they’ve produced on the field so far in 2012. Whether it has been a banged-up offensive line, the adjustment from Jordan Wynn to Hays at quarterback or dropped passes and fumbles, Utah’s offense just hasn’t performed as well as it had hoped and ranks 112th nationally, averaging 298.25 yards per game.
Center Tevita Stevens said the team can improve, even against a team like USC, and referred to last year’s 0-4 start in the Pac-12 as to why the Utes shouldn’t be counted out now.
“People who counted us out saw us fight back and we got a bowl win,” he said. “Like coach said, we’re still young and working on little things as time progresses, but we can fight back.”
The one thing that won’t happen, the Utes promise, is any hangover effect from that loss to ASU. The last time that happened was in 2010, when the Utes lost at home to TCU 47-7 then fell 28-3 at Notre Dame the following week.
“You feel a loss like that in your gut,” Stevens said. “But you have to move on. I use it as fuel because you don’t want to feel like that again. You don’t let a team beat you twice so you take what you learned from that game, fix it and get ready for the next one.”
USC is not just the next game for the Utes, it’s the big one.
USC offensive stats
Category Avg. Pac-12 NCAA
Rushing offense 165.25 6 61
Passing offense 256.75 6 46
Pass efficiency 141.66 5 44
Total offense 422 6 52
Scoring offense 33 5 44
USC at Utah
P Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN