One of the last lines of my column after Utah’s 23-20 loss to Stanford last weekend suggested the defeat would become “forgivable” if the Utes beat USC this week.
The more I think about it, that was an understatement. With the disclaimer that Utes don’t always follow up big victories with routine wins, there’s no doubt they would be in very good position for the program’s first Pac-12 South championship if they win Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Beating the Trojans would give Utah the tiebreaker in the division race. Basically, that would enable them to lose to either Washington State or Washington in November and still go to the Pac-12 championship game – even if the Trojans finished 7-2 in conference play.
Never mind that the Utes are double-digit underdogs; this is a winnable game. The Utes have played USC as competitively as any South rival has done in this decade, including two wins in the last three meetings. Even in a 42-24 loss in 2015, the Utes held a 14-7 lead in the second quarter and were seemingly about to take control, before turnovers caused things to unravel.
So this is a great opportunity for the Utes, and I fully expect their defense to keep them in the game. It will be difficult for USC to score more than about 24 points with a young offensive line and an inconsistent passing game, even though Sam Darnold is a top-tier quarterback.
The challenge for the Ute offense, then, is to finish drives and score in the high 20s, as quarterback Troy Williams and his teammates failed to do against Stanford. The Utes could have scored 28 points, merely by producing touchdowns in two first-and-goal situations that ended with field goals.
Historically, I tend to mythologize USC’s football program. I start every season figuring the Trojans will win every game. But after witnessing USC’s two recent losses to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium, I’m recognizing that those guys are beatable. It could happen again Saturday, and then Utah’s season will get even more interesting.