National media takes notice as all eyes are on Utah vs. USC


— Chris Samuels

One day remains until 19th-ranked Utah goes into battle with 20th-ranked USC in Rice-Eccles Stadium, and pressure is mounting on all sides for head coach Kyle Whittingham and his team.
The Utes and the Trojans will be playing in one of only two games between two nationally-ranked opponents this week, the other being No. 24 LSU taking on the surprising No. 3 Ole Miss Rebels in Baton Rouge. This sets the eyes of national college football pundits and playoff committee members squarely on Salt Lake City to see who will take control of the Pac-12 South.
It’s not yet infeasible that Utah could crash the first ever college football playoff like they crashed the 2004 BCS party. With only one conference loss, the Utes sit even with Oregon, USC, Arizona and Arizona State at the top of the Pac-12 standings, with only two conference wins separating them from the Trojans at the top of the table.
Pressure on individual players is also coming from all sides of the national media. It all began Thursday, when SportsCenter produced a small segment comparing Utah linebacker Jared Norris with his head coach Kyle Whittingham back when he played at BYU. Then, ESPN NFL insider and draft expert Mel Kiper told SportsCenter that in his opinion, the player with the most to prove this week in college football was none other than Utah defensive end Nate Orchard, who could potentially make a big climb up the NFL draft board with a productive game against the Trojans. Finally, ESPN’s College Gameday will air a feature Saturday morning on Utah kicker Andy Phillips and his story from the ski slopes to the football field.
This is the first time since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 that the Utes have had this much talk and notoriety come their way. Even with all the noise surrounding his team, coach Whittingham is staying cool, calm and collected as always, and is sticking to his mantra of focusing on the game at hand and nothing else.
“It counts as one just like any other one,” Whittingham said. “I’m never going to get into the drama game of building up a game and making it a life or death situation, that’s not how we operate. Every game is important and this one is no different. Whatever the five [games] are after that will be no different from this one. It’s a matter of trying to play well every week.”
That said, Whittingham also realizes the challenge that the Utes face this weekend in welcoming a team that they have yet to beat since joining the Pac-12.
“They’re a very good football team. They’ve got talent at virtually every position on both sides of the ball,” Whittingham said. “Their kicking game is solid, their running back is leading the conference, Aguilar, the receiver, is a big-play guy, their line is physical and huge … tight ends are great athletes, and Kessler is having a great year and he makes everything go.”
Whittingham speaks of USC quarterback Cody Kessler, who last week against Colorado threw for 319 yards and seven touchdowns in a 56-28 beatdown of the Buffaloes. That’s something that Whittingham has kept a close eye on in preparation for this game.
“Kessler is playing very well,” Whittingham said. “He’s in the top 10 in the nation in pass efficiency and he’s taking good care of the ball. He’s thrown the ball a bunch and only has one interception. We have our work cut out for us, he makes his living in the pocket and he’s done a good job of that.”
In order for the Utes to have any success Saturday night, the defense is going to have to do what it’s asked to do every game day — pressure the quarterback and make him make quick and erratic decisions on the field. While Kessler is extremely accurate and safe with the ball, this week’s task for the defense might be a little bit easier than usual with his relative lack of escape-ability compared to other Pac-12 quarterbacks. This concept is something that senior defensive tackle Clint Shepard has taken a liking to.
“It gets me excited knowing that he’s going to try and sit there in the pocket and pass,” Shepard said. “I love that because we’re going to get to him and we’re going to bring him down.”
Another strategy the Utes might employ Saturday night is to continue to use running back Devontae Booker as the crux of their offense to run clock, gain first downs and keep the USC offense off of the field.
“The easiest place to play defense is from the sidelines when your offense is out there moving the chains and taking care of the football,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got to do just that.”
Booker knows that he will be relied upon heavily in games like these when Utah will want to limit the opposing offense’s chances by limiting their time of possession. It’s something he’s prepared to do and possibly take a beating for in order to help his team win.
“The coaches want to put the game in my hands to win it so I go out there and do everything I can to win it,” Booker said. “If they need to give it to me 30 times then yeah, I can take it. I can take the load.”
Booker also mentioned that he and his teammates want to re-write their recent history at home after the fourth quarter debacle that occurred the last time the Utes played in Rice Eccles Stadium.
“We’ve had a lot of success on the road but we lost a close game at home the last time we were here and we’re looking to redeem ourselves here at home and put up a great fight,” Booker said.
The Utes and Trojans will kickoff Saturday’s game at 8 p.m. MT.
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