Reigning Pac-12 champion and 20th-ranked Utah faces a pivotal point Saturday in its pursuit of a second league title when the Utes host No. 7 Southern California in Salt Lake City.
The Utes (4-2, 2-1) suffered a mortal blow to their College Football Playoff chances last week in a 42-32 setback at UCLA. No team has made the field taking two defeats in the same season.
Utah can still repeat as conference champion, but another loss to another unbeaten team from Los Angeles would ruin those hopes, too.
The Trojans (6-0, 4-0) meanwhile overcame a sluggish offensive performance last week, but their defense shut out Washington State in the second half en route to a 30-14 win.
USC held the Cougars in check despite going the duration without generating a turnover, the first time the Trojans defense has not gained a takeaway in a game this season. USC remains the nation’s leading team in overall turnover margin at plus-2.33 per game — 0.73 better than the next-most productive squad — and second in overall takeaways with 15.
Utah, meanwhile, is fresh off committing two critical turnovers in its loss at UCLA. Utes quarterback Cameron Rising was intercepted in Bruins territory in the first half, then a fumble in the fourth quarter set up the Bruins on a short field. That led to UCLA’s fourth consecutive possession resulting in a touchdown, a sequence that blew the game open.
Utes coach Kyle Whittingham praised the Trojans defense during his weekly media availability, highlighting USC’s national-best 24 sacks. Trojans defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is no stranger to the Pac-12, having implemented a similarly aggressive pass-rush at Washington State from 2015 through 2017.
“They’ve got a good front four … they can get after the quarterback,” Whittingham said. “The secondary’s always athletic at SC. You can look at any year from the last 50 years.
“Between the secondary and the way the front’s playing, that’s really the reason why they’ve been having success.”
Tuli Tuipulotu leads USC and the nation with seven sacks, three of which came last week. In the secondary, Max Williams, Calen Bullock and Mekhi Blackmon all have two interceptions.
Utah’s own standout in the secondary, Clark Phillips III, has four picks in the past two weeks alone — including two returned for touchdowns. Phillips’ two pick-sixes total one more than the overall number of picks USC quarterback Caleb Williams has thrown through six games.
Caleb Williams’ play has been at the forefront of an outstanding start for USC’s offense in Lincoln Riley’s first season as head coach. The Trojans are 15th in scoring offense with 40.2 points per game — just behind Utah’s 40.3, and are 25th in total offense (461.8 yards per game).
Though the Utes defense comes in following an uncharacteristically porous showing at UCLA, Utah still ranks as the league’s second-best scoring defense, allowing 19 points a game, just behind USC’s 18.7.
“They’re very talented up front, always,” USC offensive lineman Brett Neilon said Tuesday. “They’re going to throw a lot of good moves. It’s going to be a physical fight in the box.”
USC snapped a three-game losing skid at Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The Utes scored a measure of revenge last October with their first win at USC since 1916, 42-36.
–Field Level Media