Gold: USC vs. Utah no longer the Pac-12 game of the year ... but it's still a big one
This is the game we’ve had circled on our calendar for months, the seventh-ranked USC Trojans heading to Salt Lake City at 5 p.m. on Saturday to take on the 20th-ranked Utah Utes.
The defending Pac-12 champions versus the would-be Pac-12 champions. Tried-and-true versus new blood. The second-most stable program in the entire country versus one that has cycled through five head coaches — full-time, interim, and all — since their most successful coach in history retired.
But midway through a topsy-turvy college football season, the matchup has lost its luster. The game sheen is off the diamond. What could have been a battle between two top-10 teams is instead a dogfight to remain relevant, with Utah’s title hopes fading and USC’s dominance only sporadic.
Just 5 days ago, we would’ve been looking at the Pac-12 game of the year. Five days is the world in college football. Five days is an eternity.
Utah’s crushing loss to UCLA and USC’s pedestrian win over Washington State has all eyes off the Utes and Trojans and on the 11th-ranked Bruins and 12th-ranked Oregon Ducks, who rode 306 rushing yards to a 49-22 win at Arizona on Saturday. Can either one of these teams regain the momentum heading into next weekend, when UCLA and Oregon meet after a bye week?
A span of seven days could determine the entire Pac-12 race.
It would be one thing if the Utes and Trojans simply clashed stylistically. But Saturday’s battle is for the very soul of college football.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham implied as much in his weekly press conference on Monday.
Asked if the changes brought about by the transfer portal are hard to embrace, Whittingham let the world know exactly where he stands on the evolution of college football in the NIL era.
“It’s more than hard,” said Whittingham, Utah’s head coach since 2005, the second-longest tenure in college football behind Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. “It gives you a huge distaste for the game and for how it’s run and for the direction it’s going. Is that harsh enough?”
That’s way harsh, Ky.
I have said more than a few times that Kyle Whittingham's very best dealings with the media are when he begins talking about big-picture things that don't specifically have to do with his program.
This morning, at the end of his normal Monday presser, was one of those times.
— Josh Newman (@Joshua_Newman) October 10, 2022
But it also speaks volumes about the direction of his program and the direction of USC.
The Trojans quite famously became the first team in college football history to treat the transfer portal like its own personal free-agent class. USC added ample skill position talent as well as key defensive pieces.
While the Utes did not completely shun the transfer portal, adding a nice chip in former Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, they’ve mainly stuck to a formula that’s brought them success for, oh, two decades.
Only that formula is being strained this year by injuries on offense and youthful exuberance on defense.
Utah showed its warts on Saturday in its 42-32 loss to UCLA, when the only thing they missed more than Brant Kuithe were tackles.
With Kuithe down, the Utes just are not the same offense. Terrific No. 2 tight end Dalton Kincaid, a hulking pass catcher who contrasted well with Kuithe, has not been nearly as effective now that he’s seeing much more attention. Utah’s confidence in its two tight-end sets has been challenged, and for Whittingham, that’s half his game plan.
“Brant was obviously a huge part of the offense and with him and Dalton on the field, that really freed up Dalton more,” Whittingham said. “Players go down and it’s next-man-up mentality. We’ve got to adjust as coaches and make sure that we feature the right guys each week. The essence of offense is getting the ball in the hands of your playmakers.”
Defensively, the Utes found themselves constantly out of position against the Bruins, as Chip Kelly mixed up his looks, particularly in the running game. Utah frequently played itself out of the proper lanes and tackling proved a big issue against the Bruins’ star running back Zach Charbonnet, who had 198 rushing yards.
“I think that when we have had issues, it’s been primarily run defense this season,” Whittingham said. “I don’t think the pass game has been tearing us up and I don’t think we need to have a wholesale change in our approach. We’ve gotten back to more man coverage. We do need to get more pressure on the quarterback. One of our issues is we’re not getting enough pressure with a 4-man rush. We’ve got to bring pressure with 5 or more to get any heat on the quarterback. That’s been a concern and an ongoing problem through the first half of the season, which we’re right at the halfway point. That’s an evaluation that is not hard to figure out.”
When Charbonnet wasn’t pummeling the Utes, Dorian Thompson-Robinson was throwing darts all over the field, connecting on 18-of-23 passes for 299 yards and 4 scores with 1 late interception. On Monday, Whittingham said it was the most physical UCLA team he’d coached against, no faint praise from the long-time coach.
Later he said something even more accurate.
“SC, this week — doesn’t get any easier.”
Or does it?
At this point in the season, with UCLA coming off back-to-back wins over top-15 opponents and USC’s star-studded offense looking surprisingly … off … the Bruins may very well pose a tougher test to the Utes than the Trojans. ESPN’s Football Power Index Matchup Predictor actually gives Utah a 61.7-38.3 edge, in large part because of the game’s setting in the Beehive State, rather than sunny Los Angeles.
USC has only found itself on the road twice this season — a Week 2 42-18 win at Stanford and a 17-14 win over Oregon State in Week 4. That matchup with the Beavers was the first time we saw friction in what had been a mostly flawless Trojans offense. Caleb Williams completed just 16-of-36 passes, Jordan Addison was a non-factor, and USC was just … very un-USC-like.
On Saturday, the Trojans’ offense managed just 369 total yards as Caleb Williams completed just 15-of-29 passes in a 30-14 win over Washington State. Addison was once again a non-factor. It was the second time in 3 weeks that USC just looked totally flat.
“You have to win these different ways,” Riley said in his post-game interview. “You have to find ways to move the ball if something’s not working. It can’t be, ‘Oh, well, it’s not working. Guess we’re not gonna move the ball tonight.’ It’s just to continue to find ways and adapt to the situations, and we adapted, and he was a big part of it.”
And now they play a Utah defense that ranks among the best in the conference.
Just one notch below their own defense, in some ways.
“They’ve got a good front four,” Whittingham said. “They’re leading the nation in sacks. They can get after the quarterback. Secondary’s always athletic at SC. You can look at any year for the last 50 years and they’ve got great athletes back there. Between the secondary and the way the front’s playing, that’s really the reason why they’ve been having success.”
Will that success hold up, or can Utah snap back from a surprising loss to UCLA?
And if the Trojans wins, how much will it be worth, considering the Utes would now be a 3-loss team?
Now, weeks after we circled this game on the calendar as the game of the year, we’ve got more questions than answers.