- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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USC and quarterback Matt Barkley started the season as the toasts of college football. Or the hated front-runners, depending on how you respond to the Rorschach test that the Trojans are across the nation.
But a loss at Stanford and middling numbers from Barkley have doused much of the hype and knocked them off the college football radar. National championships and Heisman Trophies are no longer associated with the program in 2012, and more than a few seem eager to stick the dreaded "overrated" label on the team and player.
"I'm good at blocking all that stuff out," Barkley said. "I know what's significant to us. I know what people who know football are seeing, not just the media and what they are writing. It doesn't get to me or our offense. We've just got to keep our heads down and work for every yard we get."
USC off the radar? Trojans coach Lane Kiffin isn't buying it.
"I don't think at SC you're ever off the radar," he said. "I think that shows in the ratings of games. Even when you're not No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3, all the conversations are about SC and you're always everybody's biggest game. I don't think you ever really come off the radar here."
Backing him up is Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. To him, as well as the Utes fan base, it's a big deal that No. 13 USC is coming to Salt Lake City to play inside Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night (9 p.m. ET on ESPN).
"Without a doubt," Whittingham said. "It's been many, many years since USC was here."
Many years is right. The Trojans' previous visit was in 1917 -- a 51-0 victory.
Still, in the preseason this looked like a game with far more national juice. Most so-called pundits projected this as a likely battle of ranked, unbeaten teams, a game with significance for the Pac-12 South Division as well as the national picture. It was seen as one of just a few potential stumbling blocks for USC as it fired up its engines for a run at the national title game.
Instead, we have USC getting beaten at the line of scrimmage in 21-14 loss to the Cardinal, and Utah getting whipped every which way in a 37-7 humbling at Arizona State.
Both teams are coming off a bye week. The Trojans already had a bounce-back game in their solid 29-7 win over California. The Utes spent the extra week trying to correct the myriad issues exposed by the Sun Devils -- blocking, in particular.
"The offensive line play has been an ongoing project for us. Obviously a priority," Whittingham said. "We had plenty to work on."
The Utes must get the running game going against USC. They need running back John White to be fully healthy after an ankle injury -- he didn't look at that way at Arizona State -- because the Trojans have produced a potent pass rush this season (four sacks a game), which could make for a long night for quarterback Jon Hays if his play-action fakes aren't working.
The Trojans also have issues on the offensive line, most particularly the health of center Khaled Holmes. He's likely out of the game, which means fifth-year senior Abe Markowitz will be eyeballing Utah's 325-pound nose tackle Star Lotulelei. In last year's meeting, Holmes, probably the best center in the Pac-12, if not the nation, mostly fought Lotulelei to a stalemate. It's difficult to imagine Markowitz won't need a lot of help from his guards.
Utah's hope rests on being able to slow the Trojans' running game and get pressure on Barkley without resorting to a lot of blitzes. While the Utes pride themselves on their man-to-man coverage in the secondary, it's likely they will use a lot of the Cover 2 to help keep Trojans receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee in check. That's what Stanford did, and such schemes have kept Barkley's numbers down because opposing defenses are willing to take chances with alignments that invite Barkley to check into running plays.
"If teams are going to play Cover 2 and just send safeties over the top and double-team both outside receivers, you're going to be forced to run the ball where they can't support the run," Barkley said.
Sure, Barkley would like to go deep every other play, but, he added, "I'm not really worried about being flashy and all that if we're moving the ball."
The problem is the Trojans have been hot and cold moving the ball, through the air or on the ground. They are fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring and pass efficiency, and sixth in total offense, rushing and passing yards. They are 11th in third-down percentage.
Those numbers suggest mediocrity, not the offensive greatness most projected for Barkley and company in the preseason.
Yet, it's still early. A lot can -- and likely will -- happen over the second half of the season. Neither of these teams have permanently set a trajectory for how things will go in 2012.
An upset victory for Utah would be monumental for the program in its second year of Pac-12 play. And an impressive performance by USC could land it back on the national radar.