Since losing a 30-27 heartbreaker to Washington State on Sept. 29, USC head coach Clay Helton has repeated a mantra: We control our own destiny.
Whether Helton’s assessment is more Aaron Rodgers coolly humming, “Relax,” or Chip Diller in the streets of Faber screaming, “All is well!” will become abundantly clear Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
USC plays its first divisional game of the Pac-12 slate, and it’s against the team chosen second in the South prior to the season, the Utah Utes. Like USC, Utah comes into Saturday’s contest sporting a single loss, albeit against a Pac-12 North opponent in Stanford. And, like USC, the Utes can ensure they reach their first Pac-12 Championship Game in program history by winning out.
In other words, Utah controls its own destiny.
Utah has the added benefit of having played divisional competition, which USC has not. The Utes opened Pac-12 play on Sept. 22 with a narrow win at Arizona — though the victory came at a cost. Utah lost defensive end Kylie Fitts and quarterback Tyler Huntley, two absences that loomed large in the loss to Stanford.
Huntley in particular threw a wrench into the evolution of Utah’s offense under first-year coordinator Troy Taylor. Brought on from Eastern Washington, which routinely ranks near or at the top of FCS passing categories, Taylor was tasked with retooling the Utes passing game — a facet Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said before the season was his team’s greatest hurdle to finally reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game.
“Got some work to do. Wen Tyler was not available, it changed a little bit of the approach. Not a wholesale change, but it tweaked things,” Whittingham said, manifesting with a low-scoring performance vs. Stanford. “This is modern-day football, and 20 points is not going to get you many wins.”
Veteran Troy Williams quarterbacked Utah for much of the Arizona win, and throughout the Stanford game. A product of Los Angeles-area Narbonne High School, Williams led Utah to nine wins a season ago, including in a two-touchdown performance against USC.
Though Williams lost the starting job to Huntley before the season, Williams has shown he can run the offense effectively enough to win some games. And while USC quarterback Sam Darnold has not met the remarkable hype set before him in the preseason, Helton noted he’s played more than effectively enough to deliver victories to the Trojans.
“You look at what he’s done over the last 15 games, he’s 14-1,” Helton said.
Saturday marks Darnold’s 17th game as starting quarterback. The first came at Utah in a 31-27 Trojans loss.
“It was sad for us, we lost the ballgame in the last 16 seconds,” Helton said. “But what it really turned out to be, as sad as I was for our kids, I was really happy inside as a coach because I’d known we found our quarterback, and going forward, he would lead us extremely well.”
As USC has sought a consistent offensive rhythm much of this season, Utah coming to the Coliseum is an opportunity for Darnold to bring his career trajectory to date full circle. The Utah loss last September effectively took destiny out of USC’s hands; it was the Trojans’ second Pac-12 loss, leaving them to scoreboard-watch even after defeating eventual South division champion Colorado head-to-head.
The road to Santa Clara is far from over beyond Saturday, but fretting USC faithful can relax just a little bit if the Trojans leave with a win.
Saturday’s contest features two of the premier defenses in the Pac-12, particular in the front seven. Utah’s line features two elite-level NFL prospects in Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei, and Stanford head coach David Shaw noted similarities in style of play to that of Rasheem Green at USC.
But behind the line, Helton said Utah has what “could be” the best linebacker group USC has seen to date.
“With [Sunia] Tauteoli and [Kavika] Luafatasaga, those two kids together have played exceptional football,” Helton said. “It makes it hard to run on, I know that.
“Kyle has always been a great defensive-minded coach, and has always had that unit prepared,” Helton added.
Special Special Teams
Perhaps more so than any other Pac-12 game this season, special teams could be the deciding factor between USC and Utah. The two programs are among the most diligent in special teams scheming and preparation. Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky has an uncanny ability to aid the Utah defense by pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line.
USC has found its own weapon in Reid Budrovich, who is averaging 45 yards per punt. The Trojans also have an added asset in walk-on place kicker Chase McGrath, who is on a streak of eight successful field goal attempts.
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