Season opener attempt No. 3 for the Utah Utes.
The defending Pac-12 South champions will finally begin their season Saturday by hosting No. 20 USC in a late kickoff (10:30 p.m. ET). Utah remains the last team from the conference to begin the season after having two cancellations due to COVID-19 issues.
Nothing's guaranteed just yet, though. Because until game time, anything can happen given this pandemic.
“Things are trending in the right direction for us,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team is looking to win a 13th straight season opener. “We have to start playing at some point and hopefully this is the week that we do that.”
The Utes were scheduled to play Arizona two weeks ago and at UCLA last weekend before the Pac-12 canceled those games due to positive cases at Utah. The team is trying to remain focused through the uncertain season.
“You can’t stress about what you can’t control,” Utah receiver Solomon Enis said. “At the end of the day, it hurts, especially the day before the game and it gets canceled. But you come into the next week and you work the same way you did before, and you hope it works out the rest of the week.”
The Trojans (2-0, 2-0 Pac-12) enter with momentum after rallying to wins against Arizona State and then at Arizona. Before the season, USC was picked as the favorite to end Utah’s reign as South champion.
Here' the thing: USC doesn’t know all that much about Utah. The Utes list Jake Bentley, Cameron Rising and Drew Lisk all as their No. 1 QB on the depth chart. They also have a new running back stepping in for Zack Moss -- four of them, actually -- and a revamped defense.
“At least schematically you get something,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “Where we’re missing right now is just the personnel matchups of not being able to truly see guys on tape and what they look like.”
The Trojans do have this in their favor — experiencing actual game conditions.
“They are very talented and very athletic,” Utah running backs coach Kiel McDonald said. “They are a good football team, but you play good football teams every week in the Pac-12. So, we are starting off with the Trojans and we couldn’t be more excited to play them as our opener.”
USC QB Kedon Slovis saves his best for the last quarter. Over his career, he's thrown 11 TDs passes and no interceptions in the fourth quarter, according to the league.
Last weekend, Slovis was 13 of 15 for 143 yards and a TD in the fourth to rally the Trojans.
“When the moment gets big, he doesn’t panic. He doesn’t get tight,” USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “He just goes in there and does his job and expects to win, and that’s what’s happened the last two weeks, and that’s been really good for him.”
The last time Utah started a season this late was Nov. 28, 1895, against the Salt Lake City YMCA. The Utes lost 20-0. ... The Trojans have dropped three straight at Rice-Eccles Stadium. ... The Utes are 70-24 in Salt Lake City under Whittingham. ... USC holds a 12-6 record over Utah.
Given the late start time, weather could be a factor as the low is expected to be around 26 degrees. The coldest game in USC history was 20 degrees and in the snow during a loss at Notre Dame in 1957.
USC is 13-12-1 in “cold weather” games, which are described as when the temperature had enough of an impact on the contest that it was mentioned in the media’s recap. The last “cold weather” contest for the Trojans was at Colorado in 2019, which they won 35-31 with the temperatures in the mid-40s.
To replace Moss, the school’s all-time leading rusher, the Utes still plan on utilizing a four-back rotation. Jordan Wilmore, Devin Brumfield, Micah Bernard and freshman Ty Jordan will all see action.
“We all are there to push each other and make each other better," Brumfield said.
The extra practice sessions have helped with the growth of Utah’s young secondary.
At least, those who could practice.
“It has been a little bit of a double-edged sword where guys are getting better, but then guys that need reps are unavailable for practice,” Whittingham said. “We feel that we have made progress, but we still don’t know what we have. We haven’t lined up against anybody yet. As far as their techniques, their skill and them grasping the schemes, we are getting better on a daily basis.”
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