SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's mission against 13th-ranked USC isn't all that complicated. In fact, it's really quite simple. The Utes are eying the bottom in their Pac-12 home opener Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"As long as we're able to put one more point on the board than them, that's the objective," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
The teams nearly played to a standstill a year ago in Los Angeles. Although USC prevailed 23-14, the outcome wasn't decided until the final play of the game. That's when Matt Kalil blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt by Coleman Petersen and Torin Harris scooped up the ball and returned it for a touchdown — a score that wasn't officially added until nearly two hours after the game.
Despite the extended margin of defeat, the Utes left the Coliseum confident they could compete with the Trojans. Wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, who had 136 yards receiving and a touchdown that day, said it showed that Utah was prepared for the challenge.
Now comes the encore.
"That was a close game and I feel like it's going to be another close game this Thursday," said running back John White. "We feel like we can compete with them."
Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is also expecting another battle. While noting that the Utes did a good job last year, he said they could have done better.
"This year I think we have a better chance," Lotulelei added.
And there's more to it than a change to a more favorable venue.
Whittingham noted that it's helpful to have some familiarity with the USC program and its players, especially with most of this year's Utes having played against the Trojans to a certain extent in 2011.
"I think that can be looked at as a positive, although each year is its own separate entity and set of circumstances," Whittingham said. "But certainly going down there and having a good showing — although we came up short — could be a positive for us."
So, too, could Utah's 37-7 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 22.
Christopher said the Utes are looking at the USC game as a good chance to get that bad taste out of their mouths and play up to their capabilities.
White has similar thoughts.
"That loss to ASU, that was embarrassing and a slap in the face. But we came back this week and practiced hard and forgot about it," he said. "We're going to come out there and we're going to take it to them. We're going to give them our best shot."
It's exactly what USC coach Lane Kiffin is expecting.
"We're excited for what I think will be a very entertaining game in a place that I think will be rocking as we go in there," Kiffin said. "It will be a good test for us."
The Trojans (3-1,1-1) and Utes (2-2, 0-1) were picked to finish first and second, respectively, in the Pac-12 South preseason media poll. Both teams dropped their conference openers, however, adding extra importance to USC's first Salt Lake City game in 95 years.
Utes on the air
Southern Cal (3-1) at Utah (2-2)
Rice-Eccles Stadium, Today, 7 p.m.