You can’t wholesale change in the middle of the season. What you’re seeing (from USC) the last couple weeks is very similar to what you saw the first three or four weeks. —Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — In sizing up USC, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he doesn’t see a lot of changes since Lane Kiffin was fired last month. He noted that the Trojans are very similar under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, especially on defense.
“That didn’t impact the defense at all and so they’re playing good defense. In fact, they're No. 1 in the Pac 12 in total defense now — playing exceptionally well on that side of the ball,” Whittingham said. “Offensively, just a few minor tweaks ... otherwise it’s very similar. You can’t wholesale change in the middle of the season. What you’re seeing the last couple weeks is very similar to what you saw the first three or four weeks.”
Since making the coaching switch, USC has defeated Arizona (38-31) and lost at Notre Dame (14-10). Despite the mixed success, the Trojans have been re-energized since a 62-41 setback at Arizona State on Sept. 28 that led to Kiffin’s dismissal.
After the win over Arizona, USC quarterback Cody Kessler told ESPN.com how the players feel about Orgeron.
"I don't only speak for myself. I speak for the whole team,” Kessler said. “We would go to war for this guy any day of the week.”
At 4-3 overall and 1-2 in Pac-12 play, Orgeron and the Trojans enter Saturday’s game against Utah at a crossroads of sorts. They play at Oregon State next week and face nationally ranked Stanford and UCLA at home over the final four games of the season.
Utah co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, who had Orgeron on his staff at Miami from 1989-92, said the coach will have USC prepared.
“He’s really a good motivator, really gets the players ready to play — probably as good as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Erickson said. “He’ll have them ready to play. He’s had them ready to play since he’s been there.”
USC, though, is battling a lot of injuries. The Los Angeles Times reported that Orgeron said tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer and running back Justin Davis would not play against the Utes. Leading rusher Tre Madden missed the Notre Dame game with a hamstring injury and is considered questionable, as is wide receiver Marqise Lee (knee).
The Trojans, simply put, are hurting.
“So are we. So is everybody,” Whittingham said when asked about the rash of injuries. “No sympathy from me or anyone else and we don’t expect sympathy from anybody else.”
It’s part of the game, he explained, adding that pretty much every team in the country is banged up at this time of year.
Even so, USC still has a lot of talent on the field.
Linebackers Morgan Breslin, Devon Kennard and Hayes Pullard are the centerpieces of a defense that includes ends Leonard Williams and George Uko, as well as Dion Bailey and Josh Shaw in the secondary.
“Their defense is excellent,” Whittingham said. “In fact, that’s been their strong suit this year.”
Whittingham noted that the Trojans have weapons on offense, too — singling out Lee, the tight ends, running backs and an athletic offensive line.
“Just exactly what you would expect out of a USC team,” Whittingham said.