So it begins: The maniacal, frenetic, volatile race that is the Pac-12 South.
What better platform for the division’s most important game than the perfectly bizarre #Pac12AfterDark, where what little sense exists on the West Coast gets flipped upside down.
Around this time last year, on the same stage, Utah delivered one of the most unpredictably memorable moments of the Pac-12 season, a 62-20 pasting of Oregon in Eugene. One year later, almost to the date, the Utes will try to take advantage of an early-fall night game again, as USC comes to Salt Lake City on Friday night for a 9 p.m. Eastern time kickoff.
The only difference between this year’s final September game and 2015’s is that Utah is expected to win. Oregon may not have been the Oregon of the Chip Kelly era last season, but by no means did anyone predict a 42-point blowout in Autzen Stadium. The only surprising outcome this Friday would be if the inverse happened to Utah – if USC, the team with all the weaponry and evidently no clue how to use it, discovers its offensive identity.
Utah, of course, has never bothered much with offensive identity, preferring to remain enigmatic on that topic. Sometimes, as the Utes did in the aforementioned win over Oregon, Utah combusts all at once. On most occasions, however, as the first three games of this season suggest, the Utes are OK settling for minimal points, allowing the sturdiest defense in college football to do the work for them.
Thus far, Utah is 3-0, beating a trio of teams ranging from mediocre (BYU) to cupcake (San Jose State) to nothing more than a friendly in-state matchup (Southern Utah). The offense thus far has done as little as it could possibly do while still winning with relative comfort.
But the defense has been every bit the Utah defense the Pac-12 has come to know since the Utes joined the conference in 2011. It is allowing just 12 points per game and has already racked up 15 sacks on the year, second in the nation. This is particularly important against USC, which has all the pieces to find the end zone with regularity but has struggled in discovering its offensive rhythm against programs boasting defenses capable of doing just that.
USC coach Clay Helton couldn’t have picked a worse time to throw Sam Darnold into the mix for his first start at quarterback. For how good Stanford’s defense looked last week in a 27-10 win over the Trojans, Utah — with Dominique Hatfield patrolling the secondary behind a formidable defensive line anchored by end Kylie Fitts and Hunter Dimick and junior tackles Lowell Lotulelei and Fillipo Mokofisi — should prove equally if not more difficult to score against.
The same could have been said last year, when USC was struggling and Utah was climbing the ranks. The Trojans won that matchup, 42-24, and it wound up being the deciding factor in who claimed the Pac-12 South crown.
That was then. USC has dropped five of its last seven games, and there’s an easy common denominator to find in those five: a lack of points. It doesn’t lose in shootouts, as Oregon and UCLA are wont to do. It loses when the offense fails to show up.
It shouldn’t be particularly surprising if Utah makes that happen again.