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USC Football Behind Enemy Lines - Q&A With Utah Writers

Aaron Fischman |
September 9, 2011 | 3:01 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Utah hopes to start their Pac-12 membership with a win over USC. (qbac07/Flickr)
Utah hopes to start their Pac-12 membership with a win over USC. (qbac07/Flickr)
This week, the Utah Utes head west to face the USC Trojans for the first time in the regular season since 1948. It also marks the inaugural game of the Pac-12 Conference.

Each team enters the contest with a spotless 1-0 record, but neither squad won in the manner it would have preferred.

After producing three Barkley-to-Woods touchdown connections before halftime, the Trojans were completely shut out in the second half of the opener. The Utes also struggled to assert itself offensively. Despite turning in a two-touchdown effort, Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn threw for just 101 yards, as Utah posted a mere three points in the entire second half.

Neither team is satisfied with its early play. With that said, there were some bright spots. Utah newcomer running back John White IV played extraordinarily well in his first D-1 game. The Utes' defense also shone, but it did compete against an FCS school in Montana State. USC's defense similarly played well, but was given the good fortune of facing a first-year quarterback (Minnesota's Marqueis Gray played receiver last season) with an unproven arm.

Special thanks to Dirk Facer, Utes beat writer for the Deseret News, and Robert Jackson, the online sports director for ksl.com, for answering all our questions concerning the upcoming Utes-Trojans battle. Win or lose, the game should be an exciting beginning to Utah's Pac-12 experience.

1. From season to season, some schools must replace their quarterback or head coach. The Utes find themselves presented with the task of adjusting to a completely new conference. In fact, over the last four years, Utah has only played two of its new conference counterparts (Oregon State and Oregon). What have Coach Kyle Whittingham and company done to prepare the squad to face its new conference adversaries?

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham (Thomas A Cella/Wikimedia Commons)
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham (Thomas A Cella/Wikimedia Commons)
Dirk Facer: One of the initial preparations Utah made for the conference change was to assign each member of the coaching staff a Pac-12 team to scout during the offseason. They then met as a group and went over their findings. Since then, more extensive reports have been compiled on the opposition. The Utes are big believers in film study and have extensive tape on each team.

The hiring of offensive coordinator Norm Chow gives them a valuable resource when it comes to knowing the Pac-12. Since Kyle Whittingham (pictured left) was hired as head coach in 2005, the Utes have played new conference foes UCLA and Oregon State twice, as well as Arizona, California and Oregon once.

Robert Jackson: Coach Whittingham is unique in that regard, as team preparation in the past was the same for every opponent, with the exception of dedicating a few practices in the fall to specifically prepare for Air Force's triple option attack. This year, while the practice format has remained the same, Coach Whitt has had music blasted through the speakers.

"I want to serve two purposes," Whittingham said. "Number one, create a game-day environment. You don't play when it's quiet. And two, music that will irritate them, if possible. Get them in a bad mood, and make them work hard,"

"The intent is not to entertain them. The intent is to think, focus and react when there is distraction," he added.

This week, "Tribute To Troy" has been played on an infinite loop.

2. Utah and USC have not met in the regular season since Harry Truman was president. Now that the Utes and Trojans both occupy the Pac-12 South, do you think Saturday could mark the beginning of a very special rivalry?

DF: Utah fans hope so. One of the most exciting aspects about the conference change, obviously, is being able to play teams like UCLA and USC every year. The Utes have 32 Californians on this year's roster. Saturday could mark the start of a special rivalry if both teams continue to play at a high level. Utah's No. 1 rival, though, is BYU.

RJ: I think so. There are numerous storylines surrounding this game, including "elevator-gate." Utah and USC have also had the most success in the BCS (USC 6-1, Utah 2-0) out of the South Division teams, so it would be safe to say that a trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game will ride on this game more often than not.

3. Fresh off a three-year run as UCLA's offensive coordinator, Norm Chow (a man well-known in Trojan country) takes over for the Utes in the same capacity. How does Chow's approach differ from that of last year's co-offensive coordinators, Aaron Roderick and Dave Schramm?

Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow (Wikimedia Commons)
Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow (Wikimedia Commons)
DF: Whittingham has repeatedly said Chow (pictured right) was brought in for a reason — to run the offense with complete control and decision-making power. The only charge, really, was to move away from the spread offense and install more of a pro-style scheme to better suit the skill set of quarterback Jordan Wynn. The Utes will line up under center more often and introduce more of a downhill run game. Roderick and Schramm didn't have such free reign. Both coaches, however, are still on the staff.

RJ: Norm Chow has installed a new pro-style offense, abandoning the spread offense that Urban Meyer brought in back in 2003. Utah QB Jordan Wynn will play most of the game under center, and the Utes will try to create a downhill rushing attack. Utah may still incorporate some of the spread offense, but expect the Utes to line up in the I-formation and try to play smashmouth football against the Trojans. Last week against Montana State, Utah relied heavily on the ground game.

4. Utah junior quarterback Jordan Wynn made his first start since December shoulder surgery in Saturday's win over the Montana State Bobcats. Although Wynn threw for two touchdowns and completed 65-percent of his passes, he averaged a miniscule 6.7 yards per completion. Wynn said he must "cut loose" in order to beat the Trojans, and coach Whittingham agrees. Does Wynn face more of a physical or mental challenge as he strives to fully recover from last season's shoulder injury?

DF: It appears to be more of a mental challenge. At Tuesday's press conference, both Whittingham and Wynn noted the need to "cut loose" and open things up with more throws downfield. Wynn's longest completion against Montana State was just 15 yards. "Trusting the shoulder" seems to be the problem and something the Utes hope to alleviate this week. Wynn has thrown well in practice, but seemed to aim his throws in the season opener.

RJ: Recovering from shoulder surgery is never easy for a quarterback, but you aren't going to win many games when your longest pass completion is 15 yards. Coach Whitt called the passing game "abysmal" last week against Montana State, and added that the Utes would be lucky to win another game with that same performance.

The doctors have cleared Wynn to play; now it is on him to go out on the field and perform. He needs to trust that his shoulder is going to hold up when he makes a throw, and until he does, you will see a similar disposition to throw the short, underneath routes.

5. Both USC and Utah were extremely disappointed with their respective offensive performances last Saturday. Each team's offense stalled after halftime. The Trojans were shut out in the second half, while the Utes managed a mere field goal. Do you think Utah's offensive struggles can be explained by first-game rust/jitters or is there a deeper problem here?

USC song girls (Sara Ramsey)
USC song girls (Sara Ramsey)
DF: Once the Utes got up 24-0 early in the second quarter, they seemed to close up the playbook and were very conservative the rest of the way. On a 3rd-and-17 situation in the 4th quarter, for example, Utah lost three yards on a running play. First-game jitters certainly didn't impact running back John White IV, who ran for 150 yards in his debut with the Utes.

RJ: I think both Utah and USC shut down the playbook in the second half of their games. Utah played an extremely conservative game plan in the second half against the Bobcats, I'm sure to give USC as little film to watch as possible. The bigger concern is when passing plays were called, and open receivers were downfield, Wynn would still check down and throw to receivers on underneath routes, even if they were covered.

6. With its revamped secondary, how do the Utes fare against the passing synergy of Matt Barkley and Robert Woods, who hooked up on 17 passes and 3 touchdowns against Minnesota last Saturday?

USC WR Robert Woods (Sara Ramsey/Neon Tommy)
USC WR Robert Woods (Sara Ramsey/Neon Tommy)
DF: On paper, USC appears to have a distinct advantage in this matchup. Barkley and Woods (pictured right) have experience playing together, while Utah's secondary is comprised of two corners (Conroy Black, Ryan Lacy) and two safeties (Eric Rowe, Michael Walker), who made their first major college starts last week. The newcomers did well, but playing in a venue like the Coliseum against talents like Barkley and Woods will be a whole new challenge.

RJ: With a quarterback/receiver tandem as good as Barkley and Woods are, I'm not sure many teams will be able to matchup defensively, even ones with four-year starters in the secondary. Utah's best defensive strategy will be to get to Barkley before he can make a throw.

If the Utes are able to force third and long situations, expect them to do everything they can to get to the QB. If Woods starts piling up the catches, expect safeties Keith McGill and true freshman Eric Rowe to be tasked with aiding in the defensive effort from time to time.

7. Junior college transfer (Harbor College) John White IV dazzled in his first game in a Utes uniform, rushing for 150 yards and a touchdown. For good measure, White also caught a touchdown pass. With Wynn not fully confident in his arm and White playing well, is it safe to assume that White will be given around 20 carries again?

DF: Whittingham has said he would like to give White 15-20 carries each game. Backup Tauni Vakapuna suffered a high ankle sprain against Montana State, leading to speculation that true freshman Harvey Langi, a prep All-American a year ago, may get a few touches on Saturday.

If the Utes are able to establish a ground game against the Trojans, expect Wynn to make some throws downfield to speedy receivers like DeVonte Christopher and Reggie Dunn.

RJ: Yes, White will be given plenty of opportunities to run the football. With an injury to his main backup, also expect true freshman Langi to get a few chances to see what he can do as well. The Utes will try to play ball control football and limit the time Barkley and Co. have on the field.

8. For the Utes to defeat the Trojans (and win their first ever Pac-12 conference game), what are the keys from Utah's perspective?

Utah takes on Air Force (Wikimedia Commons)
Utah takes on Air Force (Wikimedia Commons)
DF: Plain and simple, Utah has to have a more potent passing game to have a chance against USC; 101 yards just won't cut it. The same can probably be said for other numbers the Utes posted against Montana State: 16 first downs and only 292 yards of total offense. Defensively, Utah's concerns include combating quick throws by Barkley and containing Woods.

RJ: - Win the turnover battle. The Utes avoided turning the ball over against the Bobcats last week, and picked up two interceptions on defense. The Utes will need a ball or two to bounce their way to get the W on the road.

- Keep drives alive. The Utes were a lackluster 4-for-13 on 3rd downs last week. That isn't going to cut it against USC.

- Air it out. Matt Barkley and Co. are going to put up points – that is a given. Can Jordan Wynn air it out enough to keep the Trojans' defense honest?

9. Now, here's the part where we go out on a limb: What's your prediction, with a score included?

DF: When it comes to a prediction, I'll use a response by Clubber Lang. "My prediction?" he said. "Pain." This is a tough one to call after last week's performances. After having played several big games in recent years, including the Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl and trips to Michigan and Notre Dame, the Utes likely won't be intimidated by their surroundings. However, they lack USC's depth and that could be a factor.

If it is, the Trojans will prevail 35-28. If the stars align, the Utes could sneak out of L.A. with a narrow 28-24 decision. And yes, sitting on the fence hurts... a lot.

Utah Utes logo
Utah Utes logo
RJ: Road games are always tough, and while Utah has done extremely well against Pac-12 teams at home (44-6 win over UCLA in 2006, 31-28 win over Oregon State in 2008), they haven't done so well on the road (31-24 loss at Oregon in 2009, 24-7 loss at Oregon State in 2007, and a 31-10 loss at UCLA in 2006).

However, the Utes won a neutral site game against Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl in 2009, Jordan Wynn's fifth game as a starter. Wynn passed for 338 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-27 win over the Golden Bears.

Coach Whitt knows how to mentally prepare the Utes for big games, and I think this game means more for Utah than it does for USC. Can the Utes play with the big boys, week in and week out? We will find out Saturday. What a way to welcome in the new Pac-12 – the Utes, the new kid on the BCS block, going up against the USC Trojans, one of the most storied programs in all of college football and winners of 11 national championships.

Thanks to Dirk and Robert for their in-depth analysis.

Neon Tommy Sports will provide complete coverage of Saturday's Pac-12 opener between USC and Utah on Twitter and at this page.


Reach Aaron by email, or follow him on Twitter at @aaronhartf.

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