SALT LAKE CITY — Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei got to know USC quarterback Matt Barkley at Pac-12 Media Day in July. Lotulelei said Barkley was a "real cool dude" during conference functions at Universal Studios.
However, as Thursday's game between the Utes and Trojans at Rice-Eccles Stadium approaches, Lotulelei isn't expecting to see Barkley's "kick back" demeanor on the football field. Once the ball is in the air, it's all about winning.
And Utah's hopes of prevailing, Lotulelei noted, begin with containing Barkley. The Heisman Trophy candidate enters his 41st start for USC with 10,059 career passing yards and 92 touchdown tosses.
"In order for us to win this game, we have to get to Barkley. We have to disrupt him and we have to get back there, put some pressure on him," Lotulelei said. "Because if we give him all day, he'll torch us. He's a great player like everybody knows. So we've got to get back there and we've got to get to him."
Lotulelei acknowledged it won't by easy. In studying Barkley on film, he's impressed with how the senior works with his center and is able to switch things up if needed.
"I think what makes him so dangerous is his understanding of different defenses," said Lotulelei, who added that Barkley stands out over college quarterbacks in that area.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is also impressed with Barkley, calling him a "tremendous player" and a "sure-fire, first-round draft choice" who could be taken in the top five, if not No. 1 overall.
Whittingham said the thing that really impresses him is Barkley's quickness in getting the ball out of his hands. It's a skill, he explained, that is placed at a premium in the NFL and makes Barkley extremely difficult to sack.
Adding to the challenge is the cast around Barkley.
"He's surrounded by such great players," Whittingham said while noting the Trojans' talent at wide receiver, running back, tight end and on the line. Headliners include receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, as well as running backs Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal.
USC's skill and explosiveness isn't just limited to offense. Whittingham pointed out that the Trojans are also really good on defense.
"They've got a great scheme and they plug great players into that scheme. They've got some of the premier defensive players in the country," Whittingham said while making note of safety T.J. McDonald and USC's "fast and athletic" front four.19 comments on this story
The Utes, thus, face tough challenges on both sides of the ball. Whittingham said the bye week that followed a 37-7 setback at Arizona State on Sept. 22 was productive in terms of getting the players re-energized and work completed in practice.
"There is a lot of hype surrounding this game but we like the approach our players have had leading up to it," Whittingham said in Utah's weekly press release. "They have been extremely focused and determined to work on our deficiencies."
Utes on the air
USC (3-1, 1-1) at Utah (2-2, 0-1)
Thursday, 7 p.m.
Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City
TV: ESPN Radio: 700 AM