Let’s hope we don’t have a repeat ending of last year’s Utah-Southern Cal game at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Well, maybe we should be more specific: Las Vegas sports book operators sure don’t want a replay of the final moments from the last time the Trojans and Utes tangled on the gridiron.
For those who can’t remember, or simply chose to forget what happened last September in L.A., Utah was ready to try a last-second, 41-yard field goal to level the score at 17 apiece and force an overtime period against the Trojans. But Coleman Peterson’s field goal try was blocked and returned for a TD by Southern Cal’s Torin Harris...or was it a TD? Officials threw a flag on the USC bench for streaming onto the field in celebration, apparently nullifying the TD, but nonetheless keeping the final score at 17-14 in favor of the Trojans.
That is, until a couple of hours later, when the referees clarified their call and stated that the blocked FG return TD was always meant to count, thereby giving SC a 23-14 win. Of course, with the pointspread having floated between 8-9½ points the entire week, the decision caused apoplexy at many Las Vegas wagering outlets, many of which already having paid out on the original 17-14 scoreline. In the aftermath, some books honored the new 23-14 score, others continued to pay out on 17-14, and a handful decided to pay out on both sides.
No wonder the sports books are in no hurry to see Utah-USC history repeat itself anytime soon!
We doubt similar dynamics take place on Thursday night in Salt Lake City, where the Trojans and Utes will meet again at picturesque Rice-Eccles Stadium. A check of the early-week numbers on the Don Best college football odds screen notes USC as a 13-13½ point favorite at the majority of Nevada wagering outlets. Totals have yet to be released, but when they do, the Don Best Pro Odds will have them immediately.
Kickoff time will be 9:00 p.m. (ET). National TV coverage will provided by ESPN, with its normal Thursday night crew of Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer and David Pollack describing the action.
The 2012 campaign has not started as smoothly as either expected, with both suffering straight-up defeats (two of them for Utah, in fact) in September. For the Trojans, their BCS title hopes have already taken a big hit after the loss at Stanford on September 15. For the Utes, their ledger includes a pair of painful defeats vs. Utah State and Arizona State, not to mention another injury to QB Jordan Wynn.
Indeed, the latest shoulder injury suffered by Wynn, his third in his Utah career and the second to his non-throwing (left) shoulder) in the past two seasons, was enough to force him to retire from the sport. Fortunately for Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, backup QB Jon Hays had considerable experience from a year ago when stepping into the breach after Wynn’s 2011 injury, so the Utes retain some experience at the position.
Hays, however, lacks real arm strength, and is not much more than a serviceable alternative. Whittingham has also been spotting 6-foot-7 true frosh Travis Wilson, whose style has reminded some of Tim Tebow, into the lineup. Yet it’s worth noting that Hays has recorded a decent 7-4 mark as the starter over the past two seasons.
Still, the Utes are lacking dynamism offensively, ranking in triple digits nationally in most relevant categories, and not even gaining 300 ypg, ranking a poor 110th. Utah barely gained 200 yards total in its last outing, a 37-7 beating administered by Arizona State on September 22.
The running game is also suffering, as last year’s leading rusher John White IV – who gained 1,519 yards rushing a year ago – is averaging just 67 ypg thus far, although White has been slowed by a recurring ankle sprain. Last week’s bye will hopefully have allowed the ankle to fully heal.
Fortunately for the Utes, their defense remains stingy (ranks 29th nationally), and a typically thick defensive front, led by 300-lb. DTs Star Lotulelei and Dave Kruger, will be looking to take away the USC infantry diversion and pressure Trojan QB Matt Barkley, who has often been under pressure in the early going.
Indeed, Barkley’s Heisman trophy hopes seem to have taken a real hit, especially after the loss at Stanford when Barkley didn’t throw a TD pass. Barkley has also thrown four picks his last two outings, as head coach Lane Kiffin’s desire to get Barkley as many TDs as possible to boost his Heisman hopes has not been working as planned.
Barkley would certainly benefit from more of a complement from the run game which has only appeared in fits and spurts thus far. The potential is there with explosive Curtis McNeal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd, who both cracked the 100-yard mark in their most-recent game vs. Cal on September 22, yet were held to a combined 54 yards in the previous week’s loss at Palo Alto.
The Trojans have also sprung some leaks defensively, with a rebuilt defensive front not bringing consistent pressure, and the secondary continuing to appear vulnerable and a bit uncomfy in vet coordinator Monte Kiffin’s pet 'Tampa 2' cover schemes. The Trojan pass defense ranks in the middle of the national stats and would seem to provide an opportunity for Ute QBs Hays or Wilson to look downfield. If, that is, either is up to the task.
A concern for Utah backers, however, is the recent pointspread downturn experienced by the Utes since the middle of the 2010 campaign, as Whittingham’s team has dropped 15 of 22 vs. the number since. Kiffin’s Trojans, however, are only 1-3 vs. the line themselves this season, and have failed to cover their first two as road chalk in 2012.