Utes in review: Undefeated Utah is ready to change history, but ESPN’s formula favors USC

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utes celebrate the 31-0 win as Utah Utes offensive lineman London Bartholomew (76) lights the "U" after defeating the Idaho State Bengals on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Utah overwhelmed Idaho State, USC lost to BYU and the chances of the Utes beating the Trojans in the Los Angeles Coliseum this week became … worse?

The cold calculations of ESPN’s Football Power Index must be swayed emotionally by history. In response to Saturday’s evidence, the FPI slightly lowered Utah’s hopes of defeating USC to 42.1%.

It will be a fun subject all week, how the Utes haven't won a football game in Los Angeles since before the historic Coliseum was built. That 103-year history, following a 1916 victory over the Trojans at nearby Fiesta Park, disregards how Utah has visited USC only four times since 1948.

The Utes will play along with the theme, to a certain degree.

“We just have a very, very big goal,” running back Zack Moss said. “We’re not going to let anyone get in the way of that, and history’s not going to get in the way of that.”

The question of how the Trojans are affected psychologically by losing at BYU in overtime plays into Friday night’s matchup, although Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said he would judge USC only by “schematics.” Moss said Utah intends to add to the Trojans’ “good, little wound” from Provo.


Friday, 7 p.m. MDT


When the 2019 conference schedule was announced last December, Utah’s first two Pac-12 games vs. USC and Washington State jumped out. By the end of September, the Utes could be 5-0 overall and positioning themselves for the College Football Playoff. Or they could 0-2 in conference play for the second year in a row and wondering how they can overtake USC to win another Pac-12 South title.

Three takeaways

• The Utes appear primed for Pac-12 play. For the first time in nine years, Utah’s nonconference schedule ended with a Big Sky Conference opponent. Saturday’s 31-0 defeat of Idaho State at Rice-Eccles Stadium was well timed, giving the starters considerable rest and creating opportunities for backup players.

Whittingham even got his wish of giving freshman kicker Jadon Redding a shot at a meaningful field goal. Redding drilled a 35-yarder on Utah’s first drive, after Moss was stopped on third and 2.

• Tyler Huntley and Moss are making Utah’s offensive line look good. Huntley easily could have been sacked a couple of times, but he escaped for positive gains and kept the line’s sack-free record intact through three games. Moss thrives with yards after contact and that remained true even against ISU, as he ran for 106 yards on 10 carries in the first half.

The line will have to perform better in Pac-12 play, against tougher tacklers. Original starters Orlando Umana and Johnny Maea may return from injuries this week, Whittingham said.

• The difference between a good Power Five team’s personnel and an average FCS school was most noticeable in pass coverage. ISU’s receivers hardly ever appeared open, as two quarterbacks completed 10 of 23 passes for 80 yards, with one interception.

The Utes will be tested by quarterbacks Kedon Slovis of USC and Anthony Gordon of Washington State, along with their deep, talented collections of receivers.

Player of the game

Tyler Huntley. Any questions about Huntley’s downfield passing ability after the season opener at BYU were answered against Northern Illinois and ISU, even factoring in the opponents. He went 15 of 19 for 282 yards and three touchdowns Saturday, including TDs of 82 yards to Bryan Thompson and 60 yards to Brant Kuithe.

Ute offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig “has done wonders with Tyler,” Whittingham said. “They seem to be on the same wavelength … [Ludwig] says something, and he pays attention. He's playing his best football, I don't think there's any question about that.”

In a formula that's adjusted for opponents, Huntley dropped one spot to No. 12 in ESPN's Total QBR, a statistic Whittingham values. In three games, Huntley is 42 of 54 (.778) for 602 yards and four scores and has run for 99 yards.

Play of the game

Huntley's 23-yard TD pass to Thompson. His last play, midway through the third quarter, may have been his most impressive. Huntley threaded the ball to Thompson in the end zone for the score on a play that reduced Thompson's yards-per-catch figure to 42.8 for the season. His previous grabs went for 28, 38 and 82 yards.

Up next

Utah’s conference opener Friday will be a defining game. The Utes have beaten USC three straight times in Salt Lake City but doing so in the Coliseum has proven to be difficult in their four visits in this decade.