I still think they’re one of the most talented teams in the country. —Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, on USC
LOS ANGELES — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham isn’t taking USC lightly, even if the Trojans are off to a 4-3 start with an interim head coach and mounting injuries.
“I still think they’re one of the most talented teams in the country,” Whittingham said as the Utes prepared for Saturday’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. “They’ve got a lot of weapons — athletes at every position on both sides of the ball — and so we’re going to have to play our very best football.”
After last week’s 35-24 loss at Arizona, the Utes (4-3, 1-3) are determined to avoid a sluggish start like they had in Tucson.
“We’re going to have to come out and be inspired, play with that passion, that energy, that we’ve had for every game this season except the last one in the opening half,” Whittingham continued. “We’ve got to get that back from start to finish.”
Simply, falling into a 20-7 deficit at Arizona didn’t sit well.
“We didn’t match their energy and it showed on the field,” said defensive end Trevor Reilly.
The Utes have no such plans for a repeat.
“We’ve just got to make sure we come out fast,” said quarterback Travis Wilson. “I know we did that early on in our first couple of games. But we’ve just got to make sure we get back to that.”
Wilson added that the offense is determined to keep the defense off the field as much as possible.
“I’ve got to take care of the ball more. I’ve got to keep our defense out of bad situations,” said Wilson, who has thrown 10 interceptions over Pac-12 losses to Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona.
The sophomore will wear a glove on his banged up throwing hand. A sprained index finger and an inability to grip the ball took him out of action late in the second quarter at Arizona.
“We’ve got to really show up,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to prove something this Saturday.”
Utah has give up a touchdown on the opposition’s opening drive for three consecutive games, an uncharacteristic trend the Utes are eager to end — even if they did match the scores in two of the games, Arizona being the exception.
“We need to start better defensively, for sure, and find a way out of a drive,” Whittingham said.
Co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson emphasized the need to start out executing on both sides of the ball.
“We talk about it a lot, but we’ve got to go out and do it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any secret.”
Just a sense or urgency, he explained.
“It’s going to be a great test,” Wilson said. “ I know it’s going to be a great game.”
Whittingham said the Utes plan to “maximize” their time in the Los Angeles area with recruiting visits by coaches to local high schools and junior colleges. He added that it’s been fertile ground and good to the program.
As such, Whittingham acknowledged that the game carries some added weight.
“I think so because it’s in our recruiting footprint and so I think for recruiting purposes it’s more important,” he said.
In the overall scheme, though, Whittingham said that every game counts the same.
And the Utes are counting each one as an opportunity to move closer to bowl eligibility. They need two more wins over the final five games of the season to do so.
The next hurdle, however, is a big one. Utah hasn’t beaten USC in Los Angeles since 1916. The Utes have lost five straight road games to the Trojans.
“Maybe that’s a good thing — law of averages,” Whittingham joked. “I guess, maybe, it’ll (start to) equal out.”
EXTRA POINTS: USC leads the all-time series with Utah by an 8-3 margin. The Trojans hold a 5-1 edge in Los Angeles. After playing at Arizona last week, the Utes are concluding their first back-to-back road swing of the season. They play at Oregon and Washington State over consecutive weeks in November. Utah has nine starters from California. Whittingham is quite familiar with the Coliseum. Besides playing in some USFL games there, he has fond memories of watching his father, Fred, play and coach for the Rams at the historic venue.