The Utes’ vaunted secondary faces a big test from USC’s talented receivers

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) USC Trojans wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (6) scores a touchdown in the Trojans' 41-28 loss to USC in October 2018. He'll be a big threat in the Utes' game against USC in Los Angeles this weekend.

The jerseys' color is more of an Arizona State maroon than a USC cardinal, but the gold numbers tell the story.

Utah’s scout-team players are modeling USC receivers Michael Pittman Jr. (No. 6), Amon-Ra St. Brown (No. 8) and Tyler Vaughns (No. 21) in practice this week, preparing the Ute defense for Friday night’s game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Ute coach Kyle Whittingham doesn’t bother reading news releases that would enable him to rattle off opposing players’ names. He spends his time studying game films and that reveal only numbers. Still, he knows all about the Trojans’ trio of pass-catchers.

“The thing that creates the problem is those three receivers. Six, eight and 21,” Whittingham said. “Those guys, I would think, are as good a crew as anyone in the country — maybe the best in the country, as far as sheer ability.”


Friday, 7 p.m. MDT

TV: FS1.

That’s the challenge awaiting Utah’s defensive backs. “I work for the big moments,” said junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson, “and this is one of them.”

Utah vs. USC will be a showcase game for Johnson, a potential NFL first-round draft pick next April. It will be a tough test for the other corner, Tareke Lewis, a first-year starter as a senior. The safeties also must perform well, with Terrell Burgess playing one spot and Julian Blackmon hoping to fill the other, while recovering from an injury that caused him to miss last week’s win over Idaho State.

If Blackmon, who has two interceptions this season, remains unavailable, sophomore R.J. Hubert again will replace him. Hubert played well Saturday, but that was against Idaho State. This is USC, with a dynamic, pass-oriented offense that was slowed only by BYU’s three interceptions of freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis in the Cougars’ 30-27 overtime win in Provo last weekend.

Utah's 2018 secondary, with seniors Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard at safety and Johnson and Blackmon at corner, wanted to be known as the best group in school history. That title became debatable, even during Utah's first Pac-12 South championship season.

That’s because the Utes allowed some significant passing-yardage totals: 445 to Washington State, 381 to Stanford, 288 to Oregon, 285 to Arizona State and 241 to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl. Utah beat Stanford and Oregon, reducing the impact of those numbers, but opponents’ success through the air was a major factor in losses to WSU, ASU and Northwestern.

Those games left an opportunity for improvement this season. The results have been mixed so far, as Utah’s coverage became much better in the second halves vs. BYU and Northern Illinois. Idaho State was not much of a threat, but USC’s receivers will be another story (and then comes Washington State next week).

“It's going to be a big test,” Johnson said of USC. “I mean, all those guys are NFL-ready, so it's just going to be tough, matchup-wise. They throw the ball a lot more and they have a different scheme that they have over the past few years. … I welcome it; I'm fired up for it.”

Pittman, that would be No. 6, gave the Utes some problems last October, catching four passes for 107 yards and a touchdown in Utah’s 41-28 victory. Utah flustered then-freshman quarterback JT Daniels, who was lost to a season-ending knee injury in USC’s 2019 opener vs. Fresno State. Slovis stepped in and he shredded Stanford with 377 yards passing and three touchdowns in his first start, then BYU held him to 281 yards, with those three interceptions. Slovis still completed 24 of 34 attempts in Provo, with Pittman catching nine passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns and Vaughns adding seven receptions for 65 yards.

Last season, Utah occasionally moved Johnson into man-to-man coverage of an opponent’s top receiver, such as Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell. That’s not feasible against USC, with the talent spread around the field. The Trojans’, meanwhile, are likely to work around Johnson and find more favorable matchups against Lewis and nickel back Javelin Guidry.

Johnson likes the way Lewis is playing this season, and is helping him prepare for USC's upgrade in talent. “We had a conversation that 'they're going to try to test you a little bit, so you've got to be ready,' ” Johnson said. “It's nothing that he's not ready for.”

Lewis and the other Ute defensive backs will recognize the Trojans by number, anyway. They’ll know what routes USC’s receivers like to run, thanks to the scout team’s work. But seeing them in person, under the lights of the Coliseum, will create a different dynamic.


Jaylen Dixon, Utah's top receiver, has eight catches in three games. Here are the 2019 totals for USC's top three receivers:

Tyler Vaughns – 23 catches, 321 yards, one touchdown.

Michael Pittman Jr. – 21 catches, 205 yards, two touchdowns.

Amon-Ra St. Brown – 14 catches, 139 yards, two touchdowns.