Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Although Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham usually deflects questions about games that are not next on the schedule, he made an exception at Pac-12 Media Day in July.
Whittingham acknowledged that Thursday's game against USC was going to be a huge event with the "whole nine yards," including national-television coverage and the possibility that the Trojans could be ranked No. 1.
"It could be one of the biggest home games ever to take place at Rice-Eccles Stadium," Whittingham said. "If you look at the season as a whole and you point to games that will probably be critical in determining who wins championships, and so forth, we're sure that's going to be one of them."
USC and Utah were projected to finish 1-2 in the Pac-12 South's preseason media poll, adding even more intrigue to the Trojans' first game in Salt Lake City in 95 years.
Such a script, however, hasn't materialized over the first four games of the season. Neither team is undefeated and both came up short in their conference openers — USC lost to Stanford (21-14) and Utah fell to Arizona State (37-7). Two weeks before the latter, the Utes dropped a 27-20 overtime decision at Utah State.
"It takes some of the luster off the game, I guess you could say, from a national perspective," Whittingham said. "But for us it's a huge game, as is every week from this point forward."
With the regular season one-third complete, Whittingham anticipates a battle each game the rest of the way.
"Every week's a challenge — every single week," he said while adding that competition in the Pac-12 is non-stop with no intermission.
Utah's season-ending stretch of eight straight weeks of conference play without a break begins with league favorite USC. Whittingham said the Trojans are probably the most talented team in the league — not the ideal opponent for the Utes after their poor showing at ASU.
"They've got talent throughout the roster and so we've got to respond," Whittingham noted. "We'll find out what we're made of this week and what kind of resiliency we have."
Senior running back John White, one of Utah's team captains, said the leaders are determined to get everyone on the same page and level for USC's visit. The Trojans, he continued, present a lot of challenges. Quarterback Matt Barkley is a Heisman Trophy candidate and headlines a talented offense that includes running back Silas Redd, as well as wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Defensive standouts include safety T.J. McDonald and end Morgan Breslin.
"(They're) definitely a great team. They have a lot of athletic players," White said. "It's hard to find a weak spot in their defense and offense. So we've really got to study this week and we've got to go hard at practice, no whining or anything."
Utah linebacker Trevor Reilly, who has a team-high 25 tackles, is hopeful the Utes can bounce back from a lopsided loss like they did a year ago. They followed a 34-10 defeat at California with a 27-8 win over Oregon State. It ushered in a four-game winning streak.
"We're kind of hoping for something like that where we're forgetting about last week and moving on towards SC," Reilly said.
For Southern Californians like Reilly, the USC game has special meaning. He grew up watching stars like Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart play.
"I went to all their games," Reilly said while noting how the Trojans have dominated college football over the years and have a bunch of five-star guys. "My family was lifelong SC fans."
Key word: was.
Reilly wasn't recruited by USC, providing him extra motivation. The junior compares it to the passion that in-state players have when facing BYU and Utah State.
"Whenever we play teams from down there, I like to stick it to them," Reilly said of his Southern California roots. "But I want to win every game."
Facing USC in Salt Lake City, though, represents a coming of age for the Utah football program and membership in the Pac-12.
"The big dogs are coming to town," Reilly said.
Utah quarterback Jon Hays admits it'll be cool to see the Trojans come to town. While growing up in California, he also followed guys like Carson Palmer, Leinart and Bush.
Even so, Hays said the Utes won't be awestruck against the Trojans and their history of success.
"You've just got to look at it as another game," Hays said. "That's the conference we're in. You've got all these teams there."
EXTRA POINTS: USC defeated Utah 23-14 in the Pac-12's inaugural game last year at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. ... The Trojans lead the all-times series with the Utes, 7-3. However, they split the only two meetings in Salt Lake City. Utah prevailed 20-13 in 1915. USC bounced back to win 51-0 in 1917. ... The Trojans have won 11 national championships.
Pac-12 home opener
USC (3-1, 1-1) at Utah (2-2, 0-1)
Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV: ESPN Radio: ESPN 700
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