Nearly three weeks after an upset loss at Stanford Stadium, No. 13 USC squares off against Utah, which is looking to make a statement after its own disappointing start.
The Utes (2-2) have been decimated by injuries and lineup changes. Starting quarterback Jordan Wynn was forced to retire because of chronic shoulder injuries, leaving the job to senior Jon Hays. And senior running back John White, who ran for 1,519 yards in 2011, has just 233 yards this season and is averaging only 3.6 yards per carry.
USC coach Lane Kiffin expects White to be at full strength this week, and suspects he might look more like the All-Pac-12 performer he was a season ago.
“They’re just going through the growing pains of new guys in there and a running back [who’s] not healthy, so I’m sure they’ll be ready for us,” Kiffin said.
Picked to finish second in the Pac-12 South in the conference’s preseason media poll, the Utes carried high expectations coming into the season. But things haven’t worked out as planned, as they lost to rival Utah State for the first time in 12 games and lost to Arizona State by 30 points. Still, Kiffin believes the Utes, who are averaging just 23 points per game, are better than recent results indicate.
“We talk to our guys a lot about [how] previous games don’t matter,” Kiffin said. “They really don’t matter anywhere in college football. We’re always going to get everybody’s best shot.”
Coming off of a bye week, the game will provide USC senior quarterback Matt Barkley and the offense the chance to get back on track after a pair of subpar performances. In the loss to Stanford and the win against California, Barkley threw a combined four interceptions to just a single touchdown. The Trojans (3-1, 1-1) are averaging 33 points per game, down from 35.8 in 2011. Though they ran for 296 yards in a 27-9 win over Cal on Sept. 22, Barkley threw for just 192 yards, his second-lowest output of the season.
The Heisman Trophy hopeful has thrown 12 touchdown passes this season but has also tossed five interceptions, compared to just seven in the entire 2011 season. Even after a wild weekend in college football that saw West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith throw eight touchdowns in a 70-63 shootout win over Baylor, Barkley insists he isn’t concerned with his statistics — he just wants to win.
“I haven’t thought of any pressure up until this point this whole season,” Barkley said. “If we’re winning games by running the ball, then I’m fine with that. I’m not comparing myself to other people.”
Though the offense has been down in recent weeks, the defense has been playing its best football. The unit is giving up 17.2 points per game this season compared to 23.6 across 12 games in 2011. Junior cornerback Nickell Robey says he is excited about the opportunity to play a Utes team that has struggled offensively in recent weeks, especially with a backup quarterback behind center.
“When offense is struggling … just to know that we can put some fire on them, get some tips, some overthrows, some interceptions, we’ll be fine,” Robey said.
With the game on a Thursday, preparation has been different for the Trojans; they held rare Sunday and Monday practices this week. Despite the change in schedule, Robey said there really isn’t any difference in mindset for the Trojans come kickoff — they just need to play their game.
“We just know we can’t have distractions,” Robey said. “We have to limit the distractions and we just have to play USC football.”
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN.