USC vs. Utah: Trojans spread it thin last year

After an open date, USC seeks its first road victory when it plays Utah in Salt Lake City for the first time in nearly a century. Times staff writer Gary Klein examines the game's matchups and story lines.

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USC is a 14-point favorite, but a more compelling wager might concern the odds of the game ending similarly to last year's meeting at the Coliseum. Las Vegas sports books certainly hope it does not.

History's first Pac-12 Conference game ended with USC, an 81/2 –point favorite, blocking a field-goal attempt that would have tied the score. As USC cornerback Torin Harris returned the ball to the end zone, the Trojans were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct because players on the sideline left the bench to celebrate.

Meantime, none of the game officials signaled a touchdown. Most, including those in Las Vegas sports books, thought the game had ended with USC a 17-14 victor.

Two hours after the game ended, the Pac-12 Conference said the touchdown counted, making USC a spread-covering 23-14 winner.

Passing games

Listening to USC Coach Lane Kiffin the last 10 days, you'd think he no longer cares about statistics or records and that the Trojans have been shocked — shocked! — to encounter defenses specifically designed to neutralize receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley, who has had four passes intercepted in the last two games, has passed for 12 touchdowns. He has had five passes intercepted overall, only two fewer than were picked off in 12 games last season.

Lee and Woods are still regarded as the best receiver duo in college football, but both had costly drops Sept. 22 against California.

Utah ranks 50th among 120 major college teams in pass defense.

Jon Hays is Utah's starting quarterback. The senior took over after Jordan Wynn suffered a career-ending shoulder injury against Utah State on Sept. 7.

Hays has completed 40 of 68 passes for 467 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.

He faces a USC secondary still searching for consistent cornerback play opposite Nickell Robey. The Trojans rank 61st in pass defense.

Center of attention

After Stanford's front seven dominated the Trojans last month, it's no surprise that much has been made of Utah nose tackle Star Lotulelei and his potential impact on the game.

"He's a great player, but you can't be thinking about an individual player when you're dropping back," Barkley said. "That will just screw everything up."

USC center Khaled Holmes appeared to aggravate an ankle injury against Cal. If the senior plays against Utah, he should offset Lotulelei.

USC had nine sacks against Cal and will be gunning for more against an inexperienced and injury-thinned Utes offensive line. Trojans end Morgan Breslin is tied for fifth nationally with 91/2 tackles for losses, including 51/2 sacks.

Generation gap

Last year's game matched two of the most experienced minds in football: Monte Kiffin, USC's assistant head coach for defense, and then-Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow.

Tonight, the 72-year-old Kiffin matches schemes with Utah's 25-year-old Brian Johnson, college football's youngest offensive coordinator.

Utah has averaged 298.3 yards a game, which ranks 112th. USC is 36th in total defense, giving up 346.5 yards a game.

In a rush

USC amassed nearly 300 yards rushing against Cal. Silas Redd has averaged 84.5 rushing yards a game, Curtis McNeal 56.2.

Utah running back John White, who played at South Torrance High and Harbor College, rushed for more than 1,500 yards last season but has been slowed by an ankle injury. In the Utes' 37-7 loss against Arizona State, he gained only 18 yards in 14 carries, fumbling twice.

Backup Kelvin York played at Fullerton College and committed to USC before the Trojans stopped recruiting him after he suffered a knee injury in 2011. York has gained 86 yards in 13 carries.

Local product

In USC history, offensive lineman John Martinez is only the third letterman from Utah.

End Joe Davis, who played in 1940-42, and fullback Stanley Havili, who played in 2006-10, are the others.

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