SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- This is the game that will set the course for what kind of season USC can have this year.
The No. 20-ranked Trojans have shown poise and resilience the first two weeks, escaping late jams against Arizona State and Arizona, but they haven't shown whether they can fix their flaws and kick into another gear for a true Pac-12 championship run.
Even though nobody truly knows what to expect from this Utah team that hasn't played a game yet this season and is unveiling a changing of the guard offensively, the Utes have a cultural ethos within their program that commands respect.
They are likely to play disciplined and impose their physicality up front on both sides -- in some ways the opposite of what the Trojans have shown to this point.
If USC can smooth out its rough edges and show that it is a team capable of progressing from week to week, then everything is ahead for these Trojans moving forward.
If they play like they did against Arizona, well ...
All of that being said, here are some final thoughts before the teams take the field tonight at Rice-Eccles Stadium for the 7:30 p.m. PT kickoff (on ESPN).
The Naivar wrinkle ...
While much has been made about the Trojans not having any film on the Utes, who of course had their first two games wiped out by COVID this fall, there is one interesting factor that could work in USC's favor.
After Texas dismissed now-USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando after the regular season last year, his longtime lieutenant Craig Naivar -- now the Trojans' safeties coach -- took over as coordinator for the Alamo Bowl and led the Longhorns to a dominant 38-10 win over ... yep, Utah.
It was the fewest points the Utes scored all season and the fewest yards (254) by far.
Orlando was asked this week how much input Naivar has had on the game plan based on the scouting work he did ahead of that bowl game -- even if some of the key personnel are different for Utah now.
"A lot. A lot. The one thing that he has is he's seen these guys physically too," Orlando said. "So you've got to remember you look at their games and this turns into a third opponent we have not seen their personnel off of a game tape from this year. So it's crazy when you think about it that way, but we're going to go through the things -- especially when you get into a bowl prep and you have time. So when you have 8-10 days to really take a look at somebody you're going to have a pretty good idea of what's going on. But he's the last guy that's physically seen these guys. So as we go through the film he can tell us things that he saw from that game and can tell us about the personnel too."
Bad mojo Rising?
Utah has not publicly announced a starting quarterback after having senior South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley and sophomore former Texas transfer Cameron Rising (along with veteran Drew Lisk) competing this preseason to fill the void left by Tyler Huntley.
Many expected Bentley -- the older player who transferred in for the chance to play out his final season -- to win the job, but our Utes Nation insider Alex Markham told us he expects it to be Rising.
That would seem less ideal for USC, as Rising was a very mobile dual-threat quarterback at Newbury Park HS in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He rushed for 496 yards and 9 touchdowns as a senior and 390 yards and 4 TDs in just 5 games as a junior.
It's been no secret that USC is and has been vulnerable against QB scrambles for quite some time, and with the Trojans' penchant for aggressive blitzes those openings up the middle will remain open unless USC adjusts as it did in the second half last week with a dedicated spy on the QB.
In terms of the Trojans' prep for this game, Orlando said they couldn't make any assumptions on who would be at quarterback for Utah, so they were planning for all scenarios.
"No, you've got to look at them all -- you just don't know. You go into it and really at the end of the day you've got a good beat on everybody and then you go out there and watch it in pregame and see who goes out with the ones when they're doing their team reps and kind of piece it together, and then you find out who's going to be the first guy who comes off the bench when they line up in their very first play," he said. "But you always have to do that with first games. We had to do that vs. some of the younger guys with Arizona State at receiver, like LV [Bunkley-Shelton] and Johnny [Wilson] and those guys. So you get an idea of what they've done in the past off of different tape."
This may or may not have any relevance, but Orlando was the DC at Texas in 2018 when Rising was a true freshman. So he should have some familiarity with his skill set at least.
No Zack Moss, but some familiar names in the Utah backfield
In replacing star running back Zack Moss, Utah is expected to go with a committee in the backfield.
Junior Devin Brumfield, who rushed for 263 yards on 4.5 yards per carry last season, and sophomore Jordan Wilmore (209 yards on 4.0 YPC) were listed atop the depth chart in an "OR" situation prior to the Utes' cancelled season opener vs. Arizona.
Wilmore, of course, is a former USC commit out of Lawndale HS, who switched to Utah late in the 2019 recruiting cycle.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on Ty Jordan, who was about as close to being a USC commit in the 2020 class as could be. When TrojanSports.com visited Jordan late last spring, he said that the Trojans were his clear No. 1, and it seemed only a formality that he'd commit after an official visit. Instead, he committed initially to in-state Texas while citing some very legitimate family reasons as a motivator to stay close to home, before later flipping to Utah.
Jordan is a speedy change-of-pace back who could see some real opportunity Saturday night.
Young secondary an enticing matchup for Trojans
The 2019 USC-Utah game will forever be remembered as the Matt Fink game, as the Trojans backup QB came off the bench following Kedon Slovis' early concussion and completed 21 of 30 passes for 351 yards, 3 TDs and 1 pick in a 30-23 win, effectively throwing jump balls downfield to Michael Pittman all game.
It was Utah's only regular-season loss and USC's best win.
Well, not to say that the heave-and-hope plan is replicable for the Trojans on Saturday night, but Utah does have a very young secondary that would seem to be a prime target for this USC passing attack.
The Utes are expected to start two true freshmen (cornerback Clark Phillips III and safety Nate Ritchie -- both former USC targets) and two sophomores (cornerback JaTravis Broughton and nickel Malone Mataele) along with senior free safety Vonte Davis.
Sharpening Steele ...
A year ago in the preseason, then-freshman cornerback Chris Steele was drawing an abundance of flags from the referees who USC hired to officiate practices. It seemed like it could be a concern for the aggressive cornerback leading into the season, but credit former DBs coach Greg Burns for coaching Steele out of some of those tendencies.
Per PFF's accounting, Steele was flagged for only two penalties last year.
Which makes his 4 penalties through the first two games this fall naturally concerning. But the coaches emphasized they don't want to coach him out of his aggressiveness.
"You just try to show him how things are going to be called. You want guys to be aggressive. It's hard. If you get too much into a corner's head and make him soft you'll never get that back," Orlando said. "So all we're doing right now is be aggressive but understand if that head's not back toward the football that's going to get called, if you get a little bit too handsy that's going to get called. And then what he has to understand is those officials will get all this tape going into the game, and the opposing coaches -- we all do it -- if we see something on film we're going to tell the officials pregame, 'Hey, keep an eye on this stuff.'
"It's just technical stuff, but we want him to be aggressive, there's no doubt. If all of a sudden we make Chris passive and he's giving guys seven yards a cushion it's not going to matter because they'll catch every ball. So don't try to overcoach it -- just show them the film and show him what officials are calling. And I thought they were consistent. They called it and we'll get it cleaned up."
Inside the numbers ...
-The 8:30 p.m. local time kickoff in Utah is the latest for USC in 65 years.
-Utah is actually replacing all 8 players it placed on the All-Pac-12 first-team last year -- including the aforementioned Huntley and Moss -- and the Utes ranks as the ninth-youngest team in the FBS.
-Utah has won 11 consecutive home games, and the home team has won the last seven meetings in the Utes-Trojans series.
-A key Saturday night for USC will be whether the run game can prove a reliable complement to the passing attack. The Trojans coaches made a big deal about their 173 rushing yards last week, but 105 of those yards came on three plays while the other 27 running back carries averaged just 2.6 yards.