Utah once took a No. 3 ranking into the Los Angeles Coliseum to face a USC football program in turmoil. The Utes regressed to their proper level in a three-touchdown loss that eventually gave the Trojans the Pac-12 South championship via the tiebreaker and helped interim coach Clay Helton earn the job permanently.
Four years later, the Trojans again are reeling after an overtime loss at BYU, amid questions about Helton’s future. The Utes view themselves as a genuine Top 10 team, as of the mid-September start of their Pac-12 schedule. That belief stems from what happened in January, when defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Leko Fotu, running back Zack Moss and safety Julian Blackmon deferred their NFL careers in hopes of doing more at Utah.
Those decisions gave the 2019 season “a different feel than any year in Utah history,” receiver Britain Covey said this week. “Because those guys could be in the [NFL] right now, but they decided to come back because we could do something special.”
The list of breakthrough achievements could begin Friday night with Utah’s first victory in the historic Coliseum and end in the Rose Bowl with an appearance as the Pac-12 champion in nearby Pasadena, Calif.
To beat USC and validate their preseason status as the South’s favorites, the Utes will need the pass rushing skills of Anae and Fotu and more of Moss’ usual work against the Trojans. And it would certainly help them if Blackmon can play, after missing last week’s win over Idaho State with an injury. Utah needs its best personnel in the secondary to deal with USC quarterback Kedon Slovis and his outstanding receivers.
The Utes also hope to have offensive linemen Orlando Umana and Johnny Maea available, after they missed the last two games. Tyler Huntley's ability to escape the rush is a major reason why he's one of four FBS starting quarterbacks who hasn't been sacked this season. Moss' refusal to be easily tackled also has made the line look good.
“If a play's not blocked exactly right, Zack's going to make it right,” said Ute offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. “I have an appreciation for that as a play-caller. His vision is outstanding and his physicality at the end of a run has really been impressive.”
The Trojans know all about him. Moss has run for more yards vs. USC than against any of Utah’s other opponents in his career. He has gained 90, 141 yards and 140 yards vs. the Trojans, and Utah will need another highly productive game from him Friday.
The Utes also hope Huntley can maintain the poise and accuracy that has given him the country’s highest adjusted completion percentage (.900), according to the Pro Football Focus grading that accounts for passes dropped or intentionally thrown away.
There’s some pressure on Utah’s offense in this game, because of USC’s anticipated production. The Trojans have scored 31 points vs. Fresno State, 45 vs. Stanford and 27 vs. BYU, so the Utes may need another 30-point showing of their own.
Utah also likely will have to make critical plays in the fourth quarter, after being in control after three quarters in each of the first three games, and convert scoring opportunities. Freshman kicker Jadon Redding has attempted only one field goal, making a 35-yarder vs. Idaho State.
The biggest variable, though, is how the Trojans will perform in a game that's highly meaningful to them, because of their recent past (losing at BYU) and immediate future (games vs. Washington and Notre Dame). A loss to Utah would intensify the heat on Helton, after the win over Stanford temporarily made the Trojans' trajectory appear promising.
Utah expects to see an improved version of USC than the product that appeared in Provo last weekend. The Utes just hope their own performance is better than ever in the Coliseum.
UTAH AT USC
At the Coliseum, Los Angeles.
Kickoff: 7 p.m. MDT.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Utah 3-0 (0-0 Pac-12); USC 2-1 (1-0 Pac-12).
Series history: USC leads, 11-6.
Last meeting: Utah 41, USC 28 (2018).
About the Trojans: Having played FBS schools Fresno State, Stanford and BYU, the Trojans rank 40th in the country in total offense, averaging 463.7 yards. USC is 86th in total defense, allowing 409.0 yards. … Coach Clay Helton is 34-18 in his fifth season, including 2-2 vs. Utah. … Defensive tackle Jay Tufele, a sophomore from Bingham High School, has made 13 tackles, including a sack. Tufele returned a fumble for a touchdown last season vs. Utah.
About the Utes: Without having played a Power Five opponent, Utah is No. 8 in the FBS in total defense, allowing 239.3 yards. The Utes are No. 52 in total offense, averaging 439.3 yards. … Utah is 3-5 vs. USC in the program’s Pac-12 era and 20-20 vs. Pac-12 South rivals. … Zack Moss needs 196 yards to become the school’s career rushing leader. Eddie Johnson posted 3,219 yards in 1984-88. … Utah’s Sept. 28 homecoming game vs. Washington State will kick off at 8 p.m.