Friday, May 27, 2011
First, first look: Utah
By Pedro Moura
There are 11 weeks until fall camp begins for the USC football team the first week of August. During each of those in-between weeks, and traditionally later in the week, we'll offer up an early first look at the 12 scheduled opponents for the 2011 season, in chronological order. We began last week with Minnesota and we continue now with Utah, who the Trojans will face at home on Sept. 10:
The storyline is ready-made.
USC-Utah, the first conference matchup in the history of the Pac-12.
Here's the thing: Utah's pretty good, too. The Utes are the best team the Trojans play in that three-game homestand that starts off their season, with the other competitors between Minnesota and Syracuse.
And, sure, everyone points to Utah's two bad 2010 losses, to top-10 teams Boise State and Texas Christian, by a combined score of 73-10.
Here's the other thing: Most teams have bad games. Kyle Whittingham and the Utes' just happened to come on their biggest stages. Utah also beat No. 15 Pittsburgh in overtime in its season opener and went through an absolutely dominating six-game stretch during Mountain West Conference play.
Here's a compartmentalized look at the USC-Utah matchup.
Past history: Utah won the last matchup between the two schools, at the Las Vegas Bowl on Christmas during Pete Carroll's first year with the Trojans in 2001.
The score? 10-6.
USC won the previous game, also a bowl game -- but a now-defunct one, the Freedom Bowl in 1993. The score of that one was a more-entertaining 28-21.
Other than those two contests, the teams haven't competed in the last half-century, but USC leads the all-time series 6-3.
Offense: Utah brings back some impressive young talent at the skill positions and some experienced talent on the offensive line, often a pretty good combination for sustained success.
At quarterback, Whittingham has junior Jordan Wynn, who steadily improved last year after starting the final five games of 2009 as a true freshman. He's a true pocket passer who has been fairly accurate thus far, completing 62 percent of his passes last season for 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The Utes also have junior receiver DeVonte Christopher, their leading pass-catcher in 2010 with 39 catches for 660 yards and six touchdowns. He's one of Utah's fastest players and also a former quarterback who spent his first season in Salt Lake City redshirting.
On the line return center Tevita Stevens and tackles John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom. Cullen was the No. 1-ranked junior-college lineman in the country by some recruiting services a year ago out of Fullerton College and started successfully for the Utah. Stevens is a former walk-on and fellow California native in the Khaled Holmes mold as a smart, savvy center prospect. Bergstrom's a solid player who will turn 25 in August.
Oh, and don't forget -- Utah's new first-year offensive coordinator is none other than Norm Chow. Remember him?
Defense: Three players stand out defensively for the Utes, and they're all going to play the same position: sophomore Brian Blechen and two walk-ons-turned-scholarship-seniors, Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker.
The trio is slated to start at linebacker in Utah's classic 4-3-4 defense. The Utes have been running the same defense for the last two decades, spanning to Whittingham's late father Fred's arrival as the defensive coordinator in 1992.
Cornerback Brandon Burton would have been a big help in the secondary, but he declared early for the 2011 NFL draft and was selected in the fifth round by the Minnesota Vikings.
The first priority for defenders in the Utah defense is receivers; the run game is secondary, meaning the Utes potentially won't match up so well against the Trojans in September.
It's easy to envision coach Lane Kiffin and USC choosing to run the ball over and over down Utah's throats to grind out a win.
Special Teams/Special Circumstances: Nick Marsh, the second-string punter and placekicker in 2010 as a redshirt freshman out of California, is slated to take over the kicking duties this season with Joe Phillips graduated.
Returning is punter Sean Sellwood, a junior hailing from South Africa who could challenge for All-Pac-12 honors in 2011 after earning a number of Freshman All-American honors two years ago for his efforts.
Utah also loses all-conference returner Shaky Smithson.
That's it for this week. Next week comes a look at the Syracuse Orangemen.