Football set for crucial Utah tilt

Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis will look to bounce back after a rough game against BYU last week. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

USC Football (2-1) is back home this week to take on No. 10 Utah (3-0) 6 p.m. Friday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Utah may be the Pac-12’s best all-around team. The Utes climbed to No. 10 in the nation while USC fell out of the AP Top 25 this week after its loss to Brigham Young. If Utah wins this game, it would be its first time beating the Trojans in the Coliseum. 

After a standout debut two weeks ago against Stanford, freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis’ lack of experience showed last week as he threw three interceptions against BYU. The silver lining to those interceptions? It’s clear that Slovis isn’t afraid to pull the trigger, although perhaps he is eager to a fault. 

This week against Utah, Slovis will be up against a better defense that includes All-Pac-12 first team junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson and two-time All-Pac-12 second team senior safety Julian Blackmon.

It will be important for the Trojans’ offensive line to protect Slovis this week, which is something it struggled with against BYU. Redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Jalen McKenzie said the key to getting to the second level and finishing blocks is to acknowledge how different opponents play each week.

“Utah’s linebackers like to come downhill, shoot the gaps to where you know that those double teams that you have are going to be quicker because you’re going to have to hit, get off, get to the linebacker,” McKenzie said.

Last week, BYU consistently dropped eight defenders into coverage, effectively shutting down offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s signature Air Raid offense to force the Trojans into their vulnerable run game, but Harrell continued to put the ball in the air. 

“I just call what I feel to be honest with you,” said Harrell regarding his approach when deciding whether to keep the ball on the ground.

Fans shouldn’t expect to see the Trojans waver from their passing game this week. Harrell said that if he could go back, he would not change any of the calls that he made in Provo, including the final pass play that resulted in a Slovis interception.

Harrell said that Slovis and the entire offense needs to be more detail-oriented.

“That comes down to being disciplined,” he said.

USC must also prepare for Utah’s strong run game on the other side of the ball. Senior running back Zack Moss is one of the best in the country and is adept at finding openings between tackles. The Trojan defense will need to contain Moss to keep Utah’s offense at bay.

Another challenge for the Trojans will be senior quarterback Tyler Huntley, a dual threat who leads the Utes’ offense with big plays both on the ground and through the air. Huntley has talented options downfield: Sophomore tight end Brant Kuithe is averaging over 20 yards per catch so far this season, while sophomore wide receiver Bryan Thompson is coming off a two-touchdown performance against Idaho State.

USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said that, based on Utah’s sharp offense and USC’s poor performance last week against BYU, the Trojans will need to clean up their tackling Friday.

This week’s game could provide some answers as to whether the Stanford victory or the BYU upset represents the true nature of Trojan football this season. Helton said he believes the BYU game was a fluke and that Slovis will be back in his groove Friday night.

“I would be shocked if he doesn’t have a great game,” Helton said. “He’s had a great week of practice. You can tell his jaw is set. He’s fired up to get back out on the field and prove something.” 

“So what, now what?” has been the Trojans’ mantra both in practice and on the sidelines this season. The saying seems appropriate now more than ever as the team heads into Friday’s game.