We’re doing really well in the red zone in terms of keeping them to field goals instead of touchdowns. But I’d say havoc plays, we’ve got to continue to improve upon, to get the ball back to our offense. —Morgan Scalley
LOS ANGELES — It’s been more than a century, 101 years to be exact, since USC has lost a football game at home to Utah. The last time was a 27-12 decision at a no-longer-in-existence venue called Fiesta Park, home to a 6,000-seat grandstand, back in 1916.
Seven straight wins by the Trojans followed, including Pac-12 contests in 2011, 2013 and 2015.
“I didn’t even know that,” Utah quarterback Troy Williams said about the drought. “I don’t think anybody else (on the team) really knows that.”
History is on the backburner as the 23rd-ranked Utes (4-1, 1-1) gear up to face the 13th-ranked Trojans (5-1, 3-1) Saturday in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (6 p.m. MDT, ABC).
Williams said he and his teammates have just got to go down there and execute.
Despite the fact that it could represent a two-game swing in the Pac-12 South championship race — a head-to-head win by USC gave the Trojans a tiebreaker over the Utes when the teams shared first-place in 2015 — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham isn’t looking at it that way.
"You never know how it is going to unfold. I think there is so much balance in the league that who knows what kind of record you are going to need at the end to get in,” he explained. “I think it is too early to make that determination. We are just approaching it like any other week — to go and play a good football team and prepare and get ready.”
For the Utes, that means returning to the form that produced victories over North Dakota, BYU, San Jose State and Arizona to open the season. The run of success came to an end with a 23-20 loss to Stanford last Saturday.
“Now we move on,” Whittingham said. “We are still in good shape in the big picture.”
Utah heads to USC with positives on both sides of the ball. The Utes also have things to work on both offensively and defensively. On offense, they’ve been adjusting to a pair of quarterbacks with Tyler Huntley’s apparent shoulder injury and the insertion of Williams as the starter.
“I think we’ve moved the ball. Obviously, there’s a transition with two different quarterbacks. We’ve got to kind of figure out what we do better with Troy in there as opposed to Tyler because it is a little different,” said offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. “But I’m happy with how we’ve moved the ball from 20 to 20. We’ve got to be better in the red zone. So that’s the main thing.”
Taylor would also like to see the offense be better on third down and elsewhere for that matter. He noted it’s not just the quarterbacks. It also involves calling better plays and improved preparation.
Whittingham made it clear that 20 points are not going to win many games in the Pac-12. In addition, turnovers obviously haven’t helped.
“We’re certainly evaluating and looking at it and trying to find the best way to fix it,” Taylor said. “It’s a new opportunity this week.”
Utah’s defense held Stanford to just 23 points and 14 first downs. However, the Utes lacked any “havoc” plays. They didn’t get a single sack or takeaway in the setback.
Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, however, is pleased with how things have gone overall.
“I like the physicality. I like guys running to the football. Rush defense is really good,” Scalley said. “We’ve given up yardage the past two weeks to some very good rushing offenses. We’ve got to limit the big plays. We’ve got to get takeaways. That’s who we are as a defense and that didn’t happen on Saturday.”
It’s an obvious focal point over the remainder of the season. There are other areas of emphasis, too.
“I like the aggressive nature of our defense,” said Scalley, who is pleased with how things are going on third down. “We’re doing really well in the red zone in terms of keeping them to field goals instead of touchdowns. But I’d say havoc plays, we’ve got to continue to improve upon, to get the ball back to our offense.”
USC coach Clay Helton anticipates quite a battle between Utah’s defense and a Trojans offense featuring Heisman Trophy candidate Sam Darnold at quarterback. The Utes prevailed 31-27 in Darnold's starting debut last season at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“This is the second year in a row that we've seen Utah in more of a four-down scheme," Helton said in a gotrojans.com report. “(Sam’s) done a terrific job of learning as he goes. He's 14-2 as a starter. Here he comes up against Utah again, an opponent he's seen before, and he knows it's going to be a challenge."
Utes on the air
No. 23 Utah (4-1.1-1) at No. 13 USC (5-1, 3-1)
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Saturday, 6 p.m. (MT)
Radio: ESPN 700AM