No. 10 Utah brings elite defense to game at USC

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has not been kind to No. 10 Utah, which returns there to face USC in a Pac-12 Conference matchup Friday night.

Sep 14, 2019; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham walks the sideline during a break in the first quarter against the Idaho State Bengals at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The Utes (3-0) are 0-4 at the venerable stadium since joining the league in 2011, including an 18-point loss in 2015 when they were ranked No. 3 in the nation. Utah’s current placement at 10 matches its highest ranking since then and is tops this week among Pac-12 teams.

“One of the challenges in coaching, you’ve got to keep the team on somewhat of an even keel,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said in his Monday press conference.

“You want to play with passion and energy. ... But you’ve got to play within the framework of the offense, defense without letting your emotions get the best of you.”

Friday’s matchup fell an overtime short of pitting two Top 25 teams. USC (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12) went to BYU riding high after a blowout win over Stanford, but missed opportunities led to a 30-27 loss in overtime.

In his weekly conference call, USC coach Clay Helton drew a parallel between Saturday’s loss and a similarly close call in the Beehive State during the 2016 season. A 31-27 decision at Utah dropped the Trojans to 1-3 with then-redshirt freshman Sam Darnold new to the starting quarterback position. USC won its next nine games, including the Rose Bowl against Penn State.

Reversing course this time means solving a Utah defense that ranks in the top 10 nationally in yards allowed (No. 8 at 239.3 per game), points allowed (No. 6 at 9.7), and rushing yards allowed (No. 7 at 65.0 per game).

The Utes also rank No. 26 nationally against the pass, which they will face plenty against USC’s Air-Raid offense.

“It’s not a lot of time to feel sorry for yourself,” Helton said, via the Los Angeles Times. “That’s what everyone was saying in (the locker room). ‘Hey, it’s one game, we’ve got to correct it and move on.’ We plan on doing big things this season and it’s early in the season.”

After an impressive first career appearance in Week 2, quarterback Kedon Slovis demonstrated at BYU some of the true freshman inconsistency that offensive coordinator Graham Harrell described following the Stanford win. Slovis did not initially win the starting job, which went to 2018 starter and sophomore JT Daniels, in part due to mistakes typical of a first-year quarterback.

Slovis was 24 of 34 for 281 yards and two touchdowns against the Cougars, but he was intercepted three times. The last of those came in overtime, sealing the outcome.

Last season, Utah’s defense forced Daniels into two interceptions in a 41-28 Utes win. Utah returns the same starting defensive front from that matchup, including Leki Fotu and Hauati Pututau. Both produced sacks in last year’s meeting.

Another familiar face on the Utah defense is cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who accounted for one of the two interceptions against USC last season. A key matchup Friday should be Johnson against USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who played his most productive game of the season last week. He finished with 95 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions.

Tyler Vaughns, who has been USC’s most consistent pass-catcher through three weeks, made seven grabs for 65 yards. Amon-Ra St. Brown, however, was held to one reception for four yards.

On the other side of the ball, Utah comes in having scored at least 30 points in each of its first three games. The Utes’ 41 against USC a season ago came during a stretch of four straight games in which they scored 40 or more, a program-best since 2004. Utah slowed late in the season after losing quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss to injuries.

Both are back and producing consistently. Huntley is 42 of 54 for 602 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. His 82-yard scoring strike to Bryan Thompson was Utah’s longest pass in a decade.

Moss comes in with 373 yards and four touchdowns, averaging a stout 6.5 yards per carry. With the dual-threat Huntley and freshman running back Jordan Wilmore, Utah will show USC a multifaceted rushing approach.

The Trojans defensive line hopes to get captain Christian Rector back after he missed Week 3 with an ankle injury.

--Field Level Media