Anticipating the atmosphere Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, USC football coach Lane Kiffin said of life with the Trojans, “You’re always everybody’s biggest game.”
Not always. Not the last time the Trojans visited the University of Utah, anyway — although The Salt Lake Tribune’s preview acknowledged that a few students with California ties were more interested in the USC game than the upcoming Thanksgiving Day meeting with Utah State.
A lot has changed since 1917, when “very little is known concerning the California squad,” according to The Tribune.
Not counting injury reports, much more is known about the Trojans of 2012, whose return to the Utah campus culminates a two-year buildup that began the moment the Utes were invited to the Pac-12.
Even with USC having fallen out of the top 10 with a loss at Stanford that diminished quarterback Matt Barkley’s Heisman Trophy hopes, this game presents a big opportunity for Utah. There’s also risk involved, which is where history comes into play.
USC’s 51-0 victory 95 years ago? Yeah, that too. The more relevant lesson is what happened two years ago, when ESPN’s “GameDay” crew spotlighted Utah vs. TCU in a November meeting of unbeaten teams. The Utes lost 47-7 and — three wins over BYU aside — the program has not been the same.
Utah is 10-10 against Football Bowl Subdivision teams since the Horned Frogs came to town, which partly is attributable to joining the Pac-12. With a young, beaten-up offensive line, an inconsistent running game and a quarterback who never imagined playing against USC while growing up in northern California, the Utes already find themselves at a breaking point in front of an ESPN audience.
Any result resembling that TCU disaster or the 37-7 loss at Arizona State could send Utah’s season spiraling out of control. Yet if the Utes can hang with USC, as happened in Los Angeles last season, where they had a chance to force overtime with a final-play field goal, they’ll inspire some hope for 2012.
The Trojans were on the verge of taking command of that game and couldn’t do it. Barkley passed for 264 yards, but a combination of turnovers and stalled drives held the Trojans to 17 offensive points. The Utes countered with production that now seems astounding, including 238 yards passing from Jordan Wynn, whose career is over because of shoulder injuries, and 11 receptions by DeVonte Christopher, who’s become an afterthought.
With safety Eric Rowe back from an injury and personnel changes at cornerback, the Ute defense should perform much better than it did at ASU, where it was torched for 347 yards and 31 points in the first half. The issue is the offense, which never found any rhythm in that game. Former 1,500-yard rusher John White gained only 18 yards on 14 carries and fumbled twice, while quarterback Jon Hays continually was pressured.
Hays expects the Trojans to load up against the run and make a QB who originally was a Division II signee try to beat them.
“If they’re going to put seven in the box,” he said, “we’ve got to be able to throw.”
Hays and the 112th-ranked Ute offense need to make a statement Thursday. Actually, so do the Trojans, whose season so far is undistinguished, with wins over Hawaii, Syracuse and Cal. That’s barely more impressive than their 1917 defeats of Arizona, Fort McArthur and the U.S. Army 21st Infantry, which brought them to Utah with a 3-1 record. Rabbit Malette, USC’s 140-pound quarterback, sparked the rout that apparently shocked everyone at Cummings Field, judging by The Tribune’s sub-headline: “Predictions Go Wrong.”
The Utes would love to have that happen again.