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Thursday, September 8, 2011
Utah, USC opens the Pac-12 era

By Ted Miller

Utah fans will file into their pie slice of the Coliseum on Saturday and they will enjoy the music. At first.

"Boy," one will say. "USC has great fight songs. 'Fight on!' is inspiring."

Kyle Whittingham
Jordan Wynn and coach Kyle Whittingham will lead Utah into its first Pac-12 game, at USC.
"I prefer 'Tribute to Troy'; it's cool how they play it after every defensive stop, even though I don't want our beloved Utes to be stopped," another will reply.

Then the third quarter will arrive. Upon the, oh, 132nd playing of each song, feelings figure to be a wee bit different for those adorned in red.

"I hate the USC band," the first will say.

"Me too," the other will respond.

And Utah will officially become a member of the Pac-12.

It's just another game against a quality foe, the coaches will say. And, sure, playing in the first-ever Pac-12 game doesn't change preparation. Still, it's pretty cool.

"It's awesome," Utah tackle Tony Bergstrom said. "To be a senior playing in the first Pac-12 game, I think it's awesome. It's a neat experience."

The Utes and Trojans will be coming at the game from different angles. Utah will be looking for validation. While the Utes have won two BCS bowl games, have finished ranked in the top-25 five of the past eight years and have an 8-5 record versus the Pac-10 over the past decade, more than a few skeptics are expecting things to be different when Utah enters the grind of a nine-game Pac-12 schedule.

USC? It's trying to maintain its perch in the top-half of the conference while it's dealing with severe NCAA sanctions, which include the second year of a two-year postseason ban.

A big game for the Trojans? Perhaps not in the locker room, but coach Lane Kiffin said he and the players are certainly aware of the perception.

"We do feel it from the media and people around here," he said.

Kiffin seemed more worried about what he called Utah's "very dominant front seven." The first key for USC is protecting quarterback Matt Barkley. If the Trojans' questionable offensive line can do that, the Utes are inexperienced in the secondary, and Barkley and receiver Robert Woods might be able to take advantage.

On the other side of the ball, Bergstrom and fellow tackle John Cullen, who missed the opener against Montana State with a concussion, will present a good matchup with USC's three defensive ends: Nick Perry, Devon Kennard and Wes Horton.

But for Utah's offense, it's not only about protecting quarterback Jordan Wynn, it's about Wynn gaining confidence in his surgically repaired shoulder and his ability to lead the Utes' new offense under coordinator Norm Chow. Against Montana State, Wynn was out of sorts, particularly in the second half when the Utes failed to score a touchdown.

"We need to dial up more shots downfield more than we did on [against Montana State] and Jordan Wynn has to gain confidence in his arm," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It's not a physical thing, but after surgery there is a period time where you have to figure out that you can cut loose and throw the way you want to without worrying about pain. He's battling through that psychologically, so it's a matter of getting over the hump mentally."

Of course, it's likely the Utes didn't show much against an FCS team in the opener. What might Chow have in his bag of tricks to spring on USC? Kiffin and Chow have plenty of history -- some of it not so good -- having coached together at USC and against each other for the previous two seasons (Chow's previous team, UCLA, faced Kiffin in 2009 when he was at Tennessee).

Said Kiffin, "There's a chess match element to it."

Still, when it comes down to it, Utah and USC will be about blocking, tackling , big plays and miscues. Just like any other game.

The Utes have played in -- and been successful in -- plenty of big stadiums against elite programs. There's zero chance they will be intimidated by the opponent or the atmosphere. The history at hand is about before and after -- not between the white lines -- and is mostly a media and fan angle.

The contested issue is simple: Who draws first blood between these new South Division rivals?

"We don't place more importance on any other game than another," Whittingham said. "It's just our first conference game, which happens to be in a great venue against a team with a storied tradition like the program at USC, so that adds to the attention that this game's getting. We're just going to try to take care of business the same way we always do."