Utah-Southern Cal Preview
Utah is among four teams leading the nation with 13 interceptions.
That’s bad news for normally accurate Southern California quarterback Cody Kessler, who has been picked off twice in back-to-back games for the first time in his career.
The third-ranked Utes can improve to 7-0 on Saturday as they seek to exploit Kessler and a Trojans’ passing game that could be missing some key players.
Utah (3-0 Pac-12) owns the nation’s second-best turnover margin at plus-12. Safety Marcus Williams has four of the team’s interceptions, and cornerback Dominique Hatfield has three.
"We have some guys back there with very good ball skills," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Probably the most important thing when those opportunities come along is that you capitalize on them."
Kessler was third in the nation in completion percentage through four games at 73.0 with 15 touchdowns. It has been a different story in consecutive losses for the Trojans, with the senior completing 61.3 percent of his passes with two scores and the four interceptions. He had one multi-interception performance in his first 32 games.
Making matters worse is that USC (3-3, 1-2) could be without receivers Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell Jr., who missed Tuesday’s practice. Rogers sat out the second half of last Saturday’s 41-31 loss at then-No. 14 Notre Dame with a hamstring injury, while Mitchell missed the contest with an ankle injury.
Jalen Greene, who has been converted from a quarterback into a receiver, is expected to play despite a hamstring problem. The Trojans are desperate for options behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, who leads the Pac-12 with 758 receiving yards.
”We’ve got a lot of young guys playing in skill positions right now,” Kessler said. ”We’re dropping numbers pretty fast, so we’ve got to move guys around. But they’re doing a great job, and it’s my job to get them ready, get them prepared and be on the same page with them, because obviously in fall camp, I didn’t work a whole lot with them.”
Kessler could have another problem since left tackle Chad Wheeler sat out Tuesday with concussion-like symptoms.
USC has the conference’s fifth-worst rushing attack with 173.3 yards per game while Utah has the best rushing defense in allowing an average of 113.5.
This is the Trojans’ second game under interim coach Clay Helton and first at home. Whittingham is being mentioned as a candidate for the permanent job.
"I never make any comments on any job speculation one way or the other," Whittingham said. "Why speculate on speculation? It doesn’t make sense. We’re right in the middle of the season right now."
The Utes are enjoying their best start since opening 8-0 in 2010. They outscored Arizona State 20-0 in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s 34-18 victory.
Devontae Booker, third in the conference with 130.5 yards rushing per game, gained 118 including touchdown runs of 25 and 62 in the fourth quarter. He also leads the Utes with 23 receptions.
Booker gained 102 yards with one score in last season’s 24-21 home win over the Trojans, the Utes’ first Pac-12 victory in the series in four tries. He’s 217 yards shy of 1,000.
"He’s just an unbelievably physical runner," Helton said. "He’s a guy that reminds you of the old Roger Craig days, to be honest with you, his legs explode on contact."
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson will have to make do without starting tight end Siale Fakailoatonga, who is out for the season after suffering an injury against the Sun Devils. Harrison Handley, who caught a touchdown last weekend, could start in his place.
"That’s a downer," Whittingham said. "He’s a good player and a great kid. It’s unfortunate. We’ll miss him, but he’ll be back next year. He has another year left."
Kenneth Scott had a career-high 166 receiving yards with one touchdown.
USC is seeking to avoid losing three straight at home for the first time since losing its last five there in 2000. Its last three-game overall slide was in 2012.
"These kids want to go out and show the world how good they are and we plan on doing that in these last six games," Helton said.