(20) USC (5-2) at (19) Utah (5-1) (ET)
GAME NOTES: In a Top-25 matchup between Pac-12 Conference foes, the 20th- ranked USC Trojans pay a visit to the 19th-ranked Utah Utes.
Despite a roller coaster past couple of seasons, USC has been a common sight in the national rankings. The Trojans piled up 56 points in a win over Colorado last Saturday, which was a nice follow-up to a 28-26 road upset of Arizona. USC is now 5-2 overall and 4-1 in league play, placing it squarely in the middle of the conference title chase.
Utah's short tenure in the Pac-12 has not led to a lot of big wins or national attention, but the Utes are hoping to changed all that this season. They boast a record of 5-1 overall, and their No. 19 ranking is their highest since November of 2010 when they were still members of the Mountain West Conference. Utah is just 2-1 in league play, however, so it still has to maintain its current level of success to have a shot at the conference crown.
Last year's matchup between these teams was not for the faint of heart. The host Trojans grinded out a 19-3 victory at home, improving to 9-3 in the all- time series.
Cody Kessler absolutely erupted against Colorado, and so did the USC offense. The Trojans' quarterback threw for 319 yards on 19-of-26 passing. More importantly, and impressively, he set a school record with seven touchdown passes. Although he has not always been that productive, Kessler has been rock-solid this season, completing nearly 70 percent of his throws for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns, compared to just a single interception.
"I think he is running our offense really well," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "We have a lot of plays in the system where he has dual reads and pass play options. He handles everything really well. He takes our coaching well. Coach Helton and I are not buddy buddies with him during the week. We coach this guy harder than any other guy on our team. He accepts it and comes to work everyday with the mind set to get better."
With Kessler slinging the ball all over the yard, the Trojans were able to rack up 532 yards of total offense against the Buffaloes, the most they have had in a game since the season opener against Fresno State. They are ranked eighth in the league in total offense (462.7 ypg), and sixth in scoring (35.6 ppg).
Nelson Agholor recorded his first 100-yard game of the season against Colorado, finishing with 128 yards and three touchdowns on six receptions. He has had at least six catches in each of the last three games, and has amassed 533 yards and seven scores on 48 total grabs. JuJu Smith (26 receptions, 350 yards, TD) is a nice second option, while Javorius Allen (24 receptions, 290 yards, TD) can make catches out of the backfield.
Of course, Allen has been much more valuable with his work in the running game, posting 909 yards and eight touchdowns on 150 carries. He leads the Pac-12 in carries and rushing yards, with no other player in the league logging more than 820 yards. Allen tallied 128 yards and a score against Colorado, marking his fourth straight game with over 100 yards.
If the offense continues to perform at such a high level, USC should be very difficult to beat, considering how well it has played on defense. The Trojans rank fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense (404.7 ypg) and third in points allowed (23.1 ppg).
The Trojans will have an interesting challenge this weekend as they face off against Devontae Booker and one of the more unique quarterback situations in the country.
Last week, both Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson each saw time under center, although the duo combined for only 62 yards and an interception on 9-of-18 passing. Wilson has thrown for 833 yards and seven touchdowns, all without a pick, while completing 56.8 percent of his passes. Thompson has fewer pass attempts, but he is second on the team in rushing yards (164). A resolution to the issue doesn't seem to be coming soon.
"We need to work that out, don't we?," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of his quarterback situation. "I can't tell you right now. Each of them played a full half. We'll have to evaluate that. We like them both. They are two guys that we have confidence in, and they both had their chance tonight. We'll evaluate the game in its entirety and probably not make an announcement again next week."
Booker provides much more certainty out of the backfield, as the Utah running back has piled up 742 yards and seven touchdowns on 120 carries. Booker recorded the 12th 200-yard rushing performance in school history last weekend, finishing with 229 yards to go along with three touchdowns.
As far as receiving threats go, Kenneth Scott (22 receptions, 228 yards, three TDS) and Dres Anderson (19 receptions, 325 yards, four TDs) are the most productive options. They are also two of only four players with 10 receptions or more.
One of the few teams in the Pac-12 playing better defense than USC at the moment is Utah. The Utes rank third in the league in total defense (328.7 ypg) and second in scoring defense (21.7 ppg). The key has been the pass rush, which, led by Nate Orchard's 10.5 sacks, leads the country in quarterback takedowns (33).
Last season, these teams met in a defensive struggle and that should once again be the case, with both team's strengths being their defenses and rushing attacks. USC's major advantage is at quarterback, and that could prove to be the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: USC 24, Utah 21