Lets Bowl: Football Going to Vegas for Battle with USC Trojans

By and

The Utah and USC football teams?the respective combatants in this year’s Las Vegas Bowl, to be played Dec. 25?have considerably different pedigrees.

USC has won eight national titles, had four Heisman Trophy winners, 121 All Americans and will be making its 40th bowl appearance?28 of which have come in the Rose Bowl.

The Utes, meanwhile, are making just their ninth-ever postseason appearance, including their sixth since 1992.

USC also leads the all-time series 6-2, hasn’t lost to Utah since 1916 and, in one four game stretch, outscored the U by a 141-2 margin.

The two schools’ respective football traditions notwithstanding, though, Utah and Southern Cal nevertheless provide an intriguing matchup this time around?one U coach Ron McBride is excited to play.

“[The Trojans] are a team with a national reputation, and they play in a great conference,” McBride said. “Plus, USC is coming into this game on a roll.”

However, the fact that it took a season-ending four game win streak for the Trojans to finish at 6-5, and two straight losses for the Utes to drop to 7-4 indicates that all the tradition, all the history won’t count for much when the two opponents face off in the 10th annual Las Vegas Bowl.

“Back then, you used to say, ‘Oh my God?it’s USC,'” McBride said. “Now, they’re just another good team we get to play against.”

Consequently, gone out the window is SC’s all-time bowl record of 25-14?the second highest number of bowl victories behind only Alabama; gone is Utah’s relatively modest 4-4 postseason mark; gone is Utah’s meager 44-86-3 all-time mark vs. Pac-10 opponents; and gone is the fact that the last time these two teams faced?in the ’93 Freedom Bowl?USC raced out to a 28-0 lead and held on for a 28-21 victory.

Of course, perhaps the greatest indication that all of USC’s rich football tradition doesn’t quite mean as much comes from the Trojans themselves.

Once regarded as the premier team in the nation for running backs, a program that produced such notables as O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen, this year’s USC squad ranks just 109th in the nation in rushing?picking up less than 100 yards a game on the ground (95.6 rypg).

By contrast, Ute halfback Dameon Hunter averages 126.9 rushing yards, and with the help of fellow senior Adam Tate, Utah picks up an average of 218.9 yards per game on the ground?13th best in the country.

“We have the second most productive running back in the history of the school in Dameon Hunter, and he and Adam Tate might be the best 1-2 punch in the country,” McBride said.

Where the teams are similar, however, is on the defensive side of the ball. USC is ranked 11th in the NCAA in allowing just 17.9 points per game, while the Utes are 14th with 18.5 ppg allowed. The Utes also rank in the nation’s top 20 in total defense and pass efficiency defense (both 17th).

Meanwhile, the Utes are just happy to get a chance to extend their season by one more game, considering the way things ended against BYU and Air Force?a pair of games the Utes should have won easily, but dropped due to late game shortcomings.

“It’s just a big comfort for this team, knowing that all the hard work we put in has resulted in a reward,” said senior wideout Cliff Russell.

Despite the late-season swoon, McBride is proud of what his Utes have accomplished?especially in the context of a preseason projected finish of sixth place in the league.

“I feel very positive about what this team has done. It has achieved more than anyone thought it could,” he said. “Other than BYU, these guys won more games than anyone else in the conference. We played consistently well all year. We were six points away from winning the conference title.”

In spite of what could have been, or perhaps even what should have been, McBride and the Utes say they are happy just to be playing a bowl game in Vegas for their second time (they defeated Fresno State 17-16 in ’99) and for getting the exclusive national television coverage from ABC that more than counteracts any disillusionment gained from having to play on Christmas Day.

“We’ve always played well in Las Vegas. It’s our No. 1 choice as a bowl game,” McBride said. “We’re excited to play on Christmas Day before a national television audience. We love that we’re the only game in town.”

Meanwhile, the coach’s players love the fact that they’ll get to prove themselves against such a tradition-rich opponent?even if the luster has faded in recent years.

“We’re playing a name-brand team, and we’re trying to get our name bigger as well,” said sophomore safety Arnold Parker.

[email protected]