Utah, USC licking wounds before meeting

September, 26, 2012
9/26/12
7:00
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In the preseason, USC's visit to Utah on Thursday, Oct. 4, looked like a big game in the Pac-12's South Division. The Trojans were perceived as national title contenders, and a trip to Rice-Eccles Stadium looked like a potential stumbling block because the Utes looked like they might be the second best team in the division.

Things have changed a bit.

On Tuesday, Trojans coach Lane Kiffin fielded a question on the Pac-12 coaches teleconference, waited patiently for 30 or so seconds, then bolted because the reporters on hand had nothing else for him. That's what happens when a so-called national title contender goes down hard in Week 3.

Meanwhile, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham fielded questions about how good Arizona State is and how surprisingly bad his defense played after the Utes suffered a 37-7 shellacking against the Sun Devils.

To summarize what Whittingham said: The pass defense was bad because Sun Devils receivers were wide open. The run defense was "sub-par" and "not very fundamentally sound at times."

The offense? It couldn't do anything. Said Whittingham, "We had no answer for their pressures."

Utah was outgained 512 yards to 209 by the Sun Devils, a South Division rival. That doesn't hint at a team that's going to be competing at the top of the division.

At least Kiffin and the Trojans headed into their bye coming off a reasonably solid win, 27-9, over California. Still, most of the questions around USC are about the surprising struggles of the passing game and the inconsistent offensive line.

What has become clear about USC: It's offensive line is a lot better with center Khaled Holmes, who is perhaps the best O-lineman in the conference. Holmes was carted off the field in the Cal game due to an aggravated ankle injury, and his status for next week -- perhaps the next few weeks -- is highly questionable.

The Utes have their own injury issues. They -- again -- lost QB Jordan Wynn to a shoulder injury, and Wynn called it a career. Then the guy who made the offense go last year, running back John White, pulled up lame with his own ankle injury. The Utes were able to pull out a win without White against BYU, but they couldn't generate any offense against the Sun Devils with a hobbled White playing at about 75 percent.

The Utes need White to be ready to go against USC. Whittingham said he was optimistic that White will be 100 percent "in the very near future... hopefully."

If White isn't himself -- and, really, even if he is -- the Utes will need a big game from QB Jon Hays to challenge the Trojans. Hays replaced Wynn last year, and his chief task then was to hand the ball to White and not screw things up. But he showed some flashes late in the season, particularly during the comeback Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech, and Whittingham praised his "dramatic improvement" this fall.

"I think he's played very well," Whittingham said. "We need to throw the ball more than we have."

That could be interesting to watch. Utah, which features two new offensive tackles, has struggled with protection issues, surrendering 11 sacks. USC leads the Pac-12 with 15 sacks.

On the other side of the ball, the Utes defense has been hot and cold. Trojans QB Matt Barkley likely is hoping to get back on track against a unit that is ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense.

Both teams have plenty to fret about during their off week.

While the contest next week doesn't look like it will carry as much gravitas as expected, it's still fair to say a Utah upset would resonate both regionally and nationally.

Suffice it to say, Kiffin would get a lot more questions on the next conference call, while Whittingham might find it more fun to provide his thoughts on his team.

Ted Miller | email

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