Los Angeles • By the end of the regular season, it may become clear that the Pac-12 South title got decided this weekend. Preseason division favorite USC and presumptive top challenger Utah collide on Saturday, and the winner puts itself in a great position to potentially supplant last year’s South champion, Colorado.
The Utes (4-1, 1-1) need to respond after their first loss of the season last weekend, but they’ll have to do it on the road against the Trojans (5-1, 3-1) in a nationally televised prime-time game on ABC in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Utes haven’t beaten the Trojans in Los Angeles since 1916.
“There is so much balance in the league that who knows what kind of record you are going to need at the end to get in,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the game’s implications on the conference standings. “I think it is too early to make that determination. It could end up that way, being a two-game swing, but we are just approaching it like any other week — to go and play a good football team and prepare and get ready.”
The Utes’ remaining games after this weekend include matchups with South foes Arizona State, UCLA and Colorado on top of meetings with Pac-12 North opponents Oregon, Washington State and Washington.
Similarly, the Trojans’ slate includes Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and UCLA along with next weekend’s nonconference game at Notre Dame.
While the Utes have to put last week’s home loss to Stanford behind them, the Trojans had a similar task last weekend after they suffered their first loss of the season two weeks ago at Washington State.
“It was good to bounce back with a win against Oregon State,” Trojan sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold said. “Now, we kind of put ourselves — just like Utah — in a position to control our own destiny. With the South being our only opponents left in Pac-12 play, it’s going to be a great journey.”
One of the major focuses for the Utes has to be scoring touchdowns in the red zone. For the season, the Utes have scored on 27 of 30 red zone possessions. However, they’ve scored touchdowns less than half the time (14-of-30). Those forfeited points haunted the Utes in a three-point loss to Stanford, a game in which they twice settled for field goals after they drove inside the Stanford 5-yard line.
Ute senior center Lo Falemaka said he’d take blame on the offensive line for those shortcomings before pointing the finger at any other position or group.
“There’s just little mistakes as an offensive line,” Falemaka said. “We’re all working as one. One person messes up or slightly messes up, it just ruins the whole play. That’s just something that we’ve got to do better as an offense, making sure everybody is on the same page and making sure everybody is doing their specific job.”
The Utes also know that they’ll have to do a better job of being disruptive than they did against Stanford. While they mostly held star running back Bryce Love in check before he broke free for a 68-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run, they also didn’t force a single turnover or record a single sack.
Led by one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Darnold, the Trojans have scored an average of 35.5 points per game and posted 467.8 yards of offense per game (181.7 rushing). Trojans coach Clay Helton knows that Utah’s defense could be the most stout unit his team will run into this season.
The Utes have held opponents to 18.4 points per game, and they rank among the top 25 in FBS in total defense.
“I will say this, I thought that looking at Utah’s defensive front line there — it’s huge,” Helton said. “Across the board, especially with [Kylie] Fitts out and [Bradlee Anae] out, they’re 300 across the board. Terrific size, but what really impressed me is this could be the best combination, tandem of linebackers that we’ve played this year with [Sunia] Tauteoli and [Kavika] Luafatasaga. Those two kids together have played exceptional football.”
UTAH at USC
At Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Kickoff • 6 p.m. MDT
TV • Ch. 4
Radio • 700 AM, Sirius 84/XM 84, Internet 975
Records • Utah 4-1, 1-1; USC 5-1, 3-1
Series history • USC leads 10-5
About the Trojans • USC has won its past 13 home games under coach Clay Helton, and redshirt sophomore starting quarterback Sam Darnold is coming off of a three-touchdown game at home last week against Oregon State. Darnold already ranks 10th on USC’s all-time list for most completions as well as 10th in total offense. Darnold goes into this weekend ranked among the top 25 passers in the nation in touchdown passes (12, 22nd) and passing yards (284.2, 24th). … Junior linebacker Cameron Smith led the team in tackles with 83 last year. He was Freshman All-American in 2015. … USC’s secondary is replacing star cornerback and Thorpe Award and Jet Award winner Adoree Jackson. Jackson, a three-year starter, won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.
About the Utes • Senior quarterback Troy Williams made his first start of the season last weekend against Stanford. He went 20 of 39 for 238 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also rushed nine times for 24 yards. Williams, who has taken over for injured starter Tyler Huntley, has completed 50 percent of his passes (29 for 58) this season. … Wide receiver Darren Carrington II bounced back from not having a catch in the first half against Stanford to make seven in the second half. He enters this weekend with the ninth-most receiving yards (584) in Football Bowl Subdivision. … Utah’s defense ranks seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense coming into this weekend. It also ranks 21st in rushing defense and 22nd in scoring defense (18.4 ppg).
At Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum