USC, trying to turn around a 1-2 start to the season, is making a change at quarterback, replacing Max Browne with redshirt freshman Sam Darnold for Friday night's game at No. 24 Utah.
Browne, a redshirt junior who waited three seasons behind Cody Kessler for his chance, has presided over a sputtering offense that managed a total of just 16 points in losses to No. 1 Alabama and then-No. 7 Stanford.
Those are two rugged defenses, and the Trojans get another Friday night in a Pac-12 South matchup at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. The game starts at 9 p.m. ET.
Article continues below ...
Utah is off to a 3-0 start for the third consecutive season, beating Southern Utah, BYU and San Jose State. The Utes, which cracked the rankings this week for the first time this season, have a somewhat familiar look: An inconsistent offense and an aggressive defense.
The performance at San Jose State last week brought back memories of Utah's “Sack Lake City” defense from a couple of years ago. The Utes' 10 sacks in a 34-17 victory tied for the second-best mark in school history.
Eight different players accounted for the sacks despite the unit losing starting defensive end Kylie Fitts (foot) earlier last week. Fitts is out for the rest of the season and will seek a medical hardship year.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said first-year defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley is more apt to bring pressure than former coordinator John Pease.
“First of all, our defensive line is a good group,” Whittingham said of a group anchored by tackle Lowell Lotulelei, a potential first-round pick. “They're talented, physical and we felt going into the season that they were going to be a strong suit for us and that's proving to be the case. They were a little bit quiet the first week, but they're starting to make some more noise.”
A defense that ranks second nationally with 15 sacks awaits Darnold, who lost a camp competition to Browne but did appear in each of the first three games, although it was only in a mop-up role last week.
“I want to see a spark in our offense, and I hope that Sam can bring that,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “I'm confident in it after three games of watching him perform.”
Browne has completed 55 of 87 passes for 474 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Darnold is 14 of 22 for 136 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.
Darnold's dual-threat ability could provide the spark USC is looking for, and it might also help that cornerback Adoree' Jackson could dabble at receiver for about five or six plays. He's played on both sides of the ball in his first two seasons, but the original plan was to limit him to defense and the return game in 2016.
Browne told reporters Monday night he is likely to transfer as a graduate student after this season.
“It surprised me for sure,” he said of the demotion. “I'd be lying if I said otherwise. … But I'll be ready. I owe it to my teammates.”
Utah's offense is retooling around junior quarterback Troy Williams, a transfer from Washington and Santa Monica College. He has completed 54 of 86 passes for 723 yards and four touchdowns, but he also has been picked off four times. Utah has fumbled nine times, losing five. The Utes rank 122nd out of 128 teams with the nine lost turnovers.
In a departure from their recent offenses, the Utes have thrown the long ball more, and Williams has delivered completions of 30-plus yards to five different receivers. Wide receiver Tim Patrick has 14 receptions for 285 yards and all four of Utah's receiving touchdowns.
Whittingham said the enhancement of the passing game has allowed his running game to be more potent. Running backs Troy McCormick, Zack Moss and Armand Shyne combined for 201 rushing yards against San Jose State — but none is dynamic as the departed Devontae Booker.
And USC's defense, led by Jackson and linebacker Cameron Smith, has much more ability than any opponent Utah has faced this year.
“They're a very talented team, probably the most talented 1-2 team in the country,” Whittingham said. “They're very dangerous and have a lot of weapons.”