Asked this week if the loss to Stanford took some of the pressure off his team, USC coach Lane Kiffin explained that even if USC’s record changes, its reputation does not.
“I don’t think SC is ever really off the radar,” he said. “That shows in the ratings of games even when we’re No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. We’re everyone’s biggest games. We’re never completely off the radar here.”
While that might sound like ego talking, Kiffin is dead on — at least when it comes to the Trojans’ Thursday night meeting with Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
For all they’ve accomplished in recent years — going undefeated twice, tying the record for the second-longest bowl win streak in NCAA history with nine victories, and playing their way into a BCS league — the Utes (2-2, 0-1) still feel like they are forever the underdog with something to prove.
With No. 13 USC (3-1, 1-1) in town, what better opportunity can the Utes have to show they can hang with not only a ranked team, but a college football institution? The Utes acknowledge that this is a game they’ve been anticipating since 2012 the schedule was released. Especially the 35 guys on the roster from California.
“It has always been a huge part of my life,” said safety Brian Blechen, who hails from Moorpark, Calif. “Any time you’d go to a football barbecue it would be half UCLA, half USC. I was never a fan of either one and now I definitely don’t like USC.”
During the preseason, there was anticipation that Thursday’s matchup would feature two undefeated teams. But even with USC falling to Stanford and their own modest 2-2 record, the importance of the game hasn’t diminished in importance for the Utes. Hosting USC, with all of its tradition and that roster filled with five-star recruits has been enough to keep them more than engaged.
“We want to play against good competition,” center Tevita Stevens said. “We’re not shying away from it and we’ve been looking forward to this game all season.”
That so many upsets already have taken place in the Pac-12 shows how much parity there is, Utah quarterback Jon Hays said. In his mind, such a close race makes Thursday’s game that much more intriguing. As far as he’s concerned, the South Division title is still up for grabs.
“Anybody can beat anybody, so these games in the South are huge,” said Hays. “It’s going to determine who is in the race again.”
The Utes have more at stake than just a placing in the Pac-12 South. While Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is 8-8 against ranked opponents, the Utes are just 2-5 against Top 25 teams since the 2008 undefeated season.
The two wins were against No. 15 Pitt in 2010 and against No. 25 BYU this year. Mixed in were blowout losses to TCU, Boise State and Arizona State.
Coupled with the defeat to the Sun Devils, the Utes believe they are due.
“We have all the talent in the world and great coaches,” Blechen said. “Now it’s up to us. It’s a huge game and we are going into it to play our best.”
Still, this is Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and other Trojan headliners we are talking about. Can the Utes really compete with that talent?
Whittingham seemed to want to hedge expectations earlier this week, saying Utah’s transition to the Pac-12 would be a “process,” and not a one-year deal.
His team appears to be having none of it.
Utah’s offense is averaging just 23 points a game and the defense has given up some big plays, but the Utes insist they fixed their mistakes during the bye week and can match USC on the field.
“That loss to ASU was embarrassing, a slap in the face,” running back John White said. “But we came back this week in practice and worked hard and forgot about it and we want to come out there and take it to them. We are going to give them our best shot and we feel like we can compete with them.”
How the Utes measure up Thursday will tell a lot about the program, both in terms of where it is now and where it is headed, ESPN analyst Rece Davis said.
“Given the road games they have coming at UCLA and Oregon State, this season could get away from them quickly,” Davis said of the Utes. “Becoming a fixture nationally is going to take time — recruiting and regularly competing for division and conference championships. Kyle Whittingham is a proven winner. He’ll get it done. It’s just not going to happen overnight.”
That might be true, but there are a whole lot of Utah fans who hope that process starts Thursday.
No. 13 USC at Utah
P At Rice-Eccles Stadium
Kickoff • 7 p.m. TV • ESPN Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 2-2, 0-1, USC 3-1, 1-1
Series history • USC leads 7-3
Last meeting • USC 23, Utah 14 (Sept. 10, 2011)
About the Utes • They are 6-1 under coach Kyle Whittingham after bye weeks. … Safety Eric Rowe is expected to play after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury. … Defensive end Joe Kruger is questionable. … Utah’s offense is averaging just 298.25 yards.
About the Trojans • Beat the Utes 23-14 last year when they blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown for the game’s final score. … Earned a 51-0 win against the Utes in 1917, the last time they played in Salt Lake City. … Marqise Lee leads the Pac-12 averaging 10 catches a game and 182 all-purpose yards a game.
Utah vs. Top 25 team since ‘09:
2009 No. 4 TCU L, 55-28
2009 No. 18 BYU L, 26-23
2010 No. 15 Pitt W, 27-24
2010 No. 4 TCU, L, 47-7
2010 No. 10 Boise L, 26-3
2011 No. 22 ASU L, 35-14
2012 No. 25 BYU W, 24-21