Utah visits Trojans for Pac-12's inaugural game
The first game in Pac-12 history couldn't take place in a more ideal setting, or with more appropriate opponents.
Nobody on the West Coast personifies college football's old guard better than Southern California, and Utah embodies the upstarts.
The Utes perfected BCS-busting with wins in the Fiesta and Sugar bowls, finally earning permanent admission to the big-time with a decade of steady excellence. USC is the winningest program in conference history, with history and championships to spare.
Add the Hollywood spotlight of the venerable Coliseum, and the Pac-12 era should start with a bang on Saturday - particularly if the Utes (1-0) can knock off the once-mighty Trojans (1-0).
''I guess you could say it's a dream,'' said Utah linebacker Brian Blechen, a Los Angeles-area native. ''For USC fans, the Coliseum is one of the most sacred places ever. ... I don't think we'll be in awe of just going back there, but I'll be excited when I hear the fight song and drums. I'll be getting pumped up even if they're not for my team. Playing in that atmosphere is something I'll be excited for.''
Utah has been on enough big stages in recent years to drain most of the tension from its trip to Los Angeles, while the Trojans have seen enough of the Utes' recent successes to avoid overconfidence. Utah also has offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who burned out across town at UCLA last year, yet still warms Trojan hearts for his four wildly successful seasons at USC a decade ago.
''From the way people write and talk about the game, it's really a big game for them because all the smaller schools are rooting for them,'' said USC coach Lane Kiffin, who was mentored by Chow. ''And when you play the way we played last week, there's no intimidation factor.''
Indeed, the Utes already realize they have no reason to feel overmatched against the Trojans, whose psychological advantages over their opponents are diminishing with each unimpressive week of the past three seasons. USC hung on for a 19-17 win over woeful Minnesota in its opener, while Utah earned a 27-10 victory over Montana State.
And don't count on the Trojans overlooking the Utes, who immediately became a rival when the Pac-12 South division was formed earlier this year.
''I've been a big fan of Utah for a long time because of all their Polynesian players,'' USC defensive lineman Christian Tupou said. ''There's no way I'm taking them lightly. I've seen what they've done for a lot of years. That's a tough, physical team that will hit you in the mouth. They can play with anybody in this conference, I think.''
Even a cursory glance at last week's game film would reveal Utah coach Kyle Whittingham's top defensive priority against USC. Receiver Robert Woods caught a school-record 17 of Matt Barkley's school-record 34 completions against the Gophers, scoring all three touchdowns in USC's win.
Kiffin also hasn't tipped his hand on his tailbacks, who now include Marc Tyler after the suspended senior earned reinstatement on Tuesday. Freshman D.J. Morgan started the opener, while talented sophomore Dillon Baxter didn't get a carry.
Yet the Trojans' raw talent doesn't scare the Utes, who have long relied on finding overlooked recruits from across the West to build their winners.
Utah has 32 native Californians on its roster - including new running back John White, who rushed for 150 yards in the opener. He attended junior college about 15 minutes from the Coliseum, and his mother got Trojans tickets while working in USC's financial aid department.
''Every game is a statement game, that's what Coach Whit stresses,'' Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn said. ''I look at this as another game. Yes, there's a lot of other things going on. It's the first Pac-12 game, but we've got to go out there and play every game 100 percent.''
The Trojans hope to apply defensive pressure on Wynn, who looked a bit shaky in the Utes' season opener. They've already noticed that Chow's offense bears a strong resemblance to Kiffin's schemes.
''It's a lot like what we see in practice every day,'' USC linebacker Chris Galippo said.
USC and Utah haven't met in the regular season since 1948. The Utes grinded out an ugly 10-6 win over the Trojans in the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl, before then-rookie USC head coach Pete Carroll embarked on a near-decade of West Coast dominance.
Both coaches put little emphasis on the history they'll make Saturday. The inaugural Pac-12 game is an important historical footnote, but the Utes realize they can't dwell on it after they run down the Coliseum tunnel.
''Technically it is our first Pac-12 game, and first real test, but this whole season is filled with those,'' said Blechen, who had two interceptions in the Utes' opener. ''We're going to have to perform every week.''