Two programs that have had to pick themselves up off the mat more than they’d probably prefer over the last two seasons will square off Saturday in Los Angeles in a game that will likely shape the pecking order of the Pac-12 South.
Utah travels to USC, and neither team feels particularly good about what it did this past week. Coming off a huge victory over Stanford, the Utes were flat in their first out-of-state road trip of the season in a 35-24 loss at Arizona.
The Trojans were offensively unimpressive in a 14-10 loss at Notre Dame.
A bowl berth still seems very much a possibility for both teams. The Trojans (4-3, 1-2) play 13 regular-season games this season because of their Week 1 trek to Hawaii. And with California and Colorado still on the schedule, it’s hard to imagine the Trojans not eking out at least two wins over the final six.
The road to the postseason is a little tougher for the Utes (4-3, 1-3). With trips to Oregon and Washington State sandwiched between home dates with ASU and Colorado, Utah is hoping it’s one-year bowl absence last season proves to be more of a freak occurrence rather than routine.
Most troubling to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, however, was that he has no explanation for why his team lacked the sizzle it showed two weeks ago in upending Stanford.
“I think that was our first out-of-state road trip and that could have played into it a little bit,” Whittingham said. “We were flat coming out. We had a good week of preparation. There were really no indicators we were going to come out flat. For whatever reason we weren’t real fired up in the first half ... We didn’t get it done. We lost some of the momentum we had from the Stanford win. Now we have to move forward and try to get that corrected this week.”
This wasn’t the first time it’s happened, either. Whittingham cited last season's 24-21 win over No. 25 BYU, which was followed by the Utes being blasted on the road by Arizona State. In 2011 they erased a 14-13 halftime deficit to win at Pittsburgh 26-14, only to tank on the road a week later at Cal.
“I talked with Coach (Dennis) Erickson afterwards and he said that’s happened to him so many times over the course of his career and he didn’t have a great answer either, other than it happens,” Whittingham said. “It’s happened to us a couple other times ... I wish I had an answer. If I had an answer than I wouldn’t let it happen. But it did.”
And now the Utes have to wash it away. With five opportunities left to find two wins, this game takes on even greater importance for Utah -- which will have to either sweep at home or pick up at least one out-of-state road win to become bowl eligible.
“The Pac-12 has become a meat grinder just like the SEC, in my opinion,” Whittingham said. “Every single week you’re going to be challenged. I don’t want to paint the picture that it was us being flat, or this and that, why we lost. Arizona is a darn good football team. They deserved to win. Ka'Deem Carey is one of the best backs in the country and did a number on us. You have to be able to play your ‘A’ every week in order to have a chance to win. We did play our ‘A’ game against Stanford and didn’t quite play up to that level this week.”
Interim USC coach Ed Orgeron is banking on his players’ peppier attitude to guide them after one opportunity after another slipped through hands in South Bend. Numerous times throughout the game the Trojans had an opportunity to re-take the lead, but either missed field goals or penalties or poor execution contributed to their downfall. Orgeron said he’s confident the Trojans have moved on.
“I really feel like we came back with a good attitude,” he said. “We’ve put the last one behind us. I really like the feeling of this team and their attitude. But we have to play well Saturday.
“They have a good mindset, whether they read (what's written about the team) or not. It’s none of our business. They are going to do what they want to do. They are grown men. But I think they are pretty focused.”
Both teams are hoping to get marquee playmakers back for this week. Utah quarterback Travis Wilson sat the second half of the Arizona game with a hand injury. Whittingham said it’s early, but he’s hopeful Wilson be ready to play. USC wide receiver Marqise Lee also missed the second half of the Notre Dame game when he aggravated his sprained knee.