In the most impactful matchup of the season thus far, the Utes return to Rice Eccles Stadium in another Saturday night showdown and face the USC Trojans.
The game is the University of Utah’s 98th homecoming celebration game, and as such, the Utes are likely to don throwback uniforms as they have in seasons past. The Utes are 59-34-4 in homecoming games, but this one will be one of the tougher games of that bunch, as the Trojans are looking to claw their way back into contention for the Pac-12 South.
The USC Trojans (4-2, 3-1 Pac-12) come into Salt Lake City with the hopes of playing spoiler to what has become a run for the Utes. The coaching matchup is among the best in the Pac-12, as Clay Helton comes to face Kyle Whittingham, both veteran play-callers with more than impressive resumes. Clay Helton, after using the talent of Sam Darnold to take over the division, is now with freshman J.T. Daniels, and although new, the tandom is making plays in recent games. It is not to the level of last year’s talent by any means, but the freshman has proven that he can put points up in that offense, something that USC is going to need to do in Salt Lake City. The Utes have put up 40+ points in their last two games.
There is something to be said about USC’s strength of schedule. In both of their games against opponents that had the favorite, USC has lost convincingly, with two big losses in a row against then-ranked Stanford and now-ranked Texas. Against Colorado, Arizona, UNLV and Washington State, they’ve been the favorite and have won. The win against WSU was their closest of the season, winning by just a field goal.
While USC has been on a roll as of late, winning their last three, ESPN has them as the underdog in Saturday’s matchup, with Utah holding the 73.6% chance to win. Good news for the Utes, as a win would both propel them further into the hunt for the Pac-12 South Championship, and a loss might cost USC a chance to take the division.
Some players to look out for on USC’s side of the ball are players at pretty typical positions. J.T. Daniels, a freshman out of Irvine, has thrown for 1,529 yards and seven touchdowns, but has also thrown five interceptions this year. A quarterback rating (QBR) of 60.4 puts him seventh in the Pac-12, just one spot above Tyler Huntley (59.9), but still in the basement of the conference. Justin Herbert, Oregon QB, sits first at 83.0, for reference. Huntley has the edge in terms of season stats, with seven touchdowns and just three interceptions, all of them coming in garbage time. Daniels had two interceptions against Colorado last week, so if Utah’s defensive line and secondary can be up to task, the Utes can force some mistakes.
Where Utah really has the edge offensively is in the run game. Zack Moss has been a weapon for the Utah’s offense and, despite relatively average numbers from Huntley, has shined and taken control of putting up points this season. USC will rely on senior Aca’Cedric Ware, who has carried for just under 400 yards on the season, with three touchdowns. Moss is sitting at a comfortable 617 yards, with seven touchdowns on the season. Obvious advantage to Utah in that category, and obvious advantage to Utah in the game.
This is all not to mention how lights-out Utah’s defense has been. Several players from the defensive unit were named Pac-12 players of the week, including Marquis Blair and Maxs Tupai, who both had stellar showings against both Stanford and Arizona. Simply because of more experience at the position, I give Utah the edge on the defensive side of the ball.
In my prediction, I had Utah just barely edging out the Trojans. While I still think Utah will leave with their third consecutive win, I now believe it won’t be as close.