SALT LAKE CITY – Nearly 3½ seasons have passed since Utah stole the national spotlight with its Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.
Since then, the Utes haven’t fared so well against the best of the best.
They have gone just 2-5 against Associated Press Top 25 opponents, including a pair of lopsided losses to Texas Christian and another to Boise State.
Their lone wins in that span have come in overtime in 2010 against a Pittsburgh team that finished out of the rankings and earlier this year by three points over then-No. 25 Brigham Young, now not even among the 39 schools receiving votes.
That said, there’s little question what Thursday night’s nationally televised matchup with No. 13 Southern California means.
“It’s huge,” said Utah quarterback Jon Hays, who grew up in Northern California. “It’s a national stage, a possibility for us to bounce back against a good USC team. It means a lot to us. We had this one circled before the season. We have to go out and have a good showing, show people what this team is capable of.”
A few months back, some hyped Thursday’s game as one that might determine the Pac-12 South title.
While USC (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) saw its national title hopes take a hit with a loss at Stanford on Sept. 15, it bounced back with a win over Cal before its bye. The Utes (2-2, 0-1), meanwhile, enter this week fifth in the South race and still trying to shake off the 37-7 blowout loss Sept. 22 at Arizona State.
The Utes have come back before when others had written them off. They did it last year when they reeled off four consecutive wins after a 24-point loss to Cal. And they did it earlier this year when few gave them a chance against BYU after an OT loss to Utah State.
“We try not to listen about anyone writing us off,” said Utah center Tevita Stevens, the solid part of the Utes’ shaky offensive line. “Any (week) anybody can win. Even last week, there were a lot of teams giving top teams a run for their money. We want to go out and play our game, show people what Utah football is all about, and we’re willing to fight to the finish to get a victory.”
Back in 2008, the Utes had busted through the BCS again, capping a second perfect season in five years with the Sugar Bowl win.
Now, the Utes still are just trying to get acclimated to the Pac-12, which has six teams ranked in the latest top-25 poll.
“That didn’t happen in the Mountain West,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, 8-8 as a head coach against teams ranked in the top 25.
The Trojans are accustomed to the spotlight. Falling out of the No. 1 overall spot hasn’t changed much for a program that has won 11 national championships.
“I don’t think USC is ever off the radar,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said on Tuesday’s Pac-12 conference call. “If you look at the ratings of games, even if we’re not 1-2-3, all the conversation is (always USC). You’re always everybody’s biggest game. I don’t think you ever come off the radar here.”
That’s certainly true going against the Utes, considering the Trojans haven’t played a game in Salt Lake City in 95 years, the last coming in 1917 when they blanked the Utes 51-0.
“Without a doubt,” Whittingham said when asked about the huge hype. “It’s been many, many years, and to have a marquee program come into our place is a big deal for our fans and community. There’s a lot of excitement that’s been generated.”
A year ago, Utah lost to USC at the Coliseum in its Pac-12 debut. Trailing 17-14 with 11 seconds left, Utah had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Coleman Petersen’s 41-yard field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown to secure a 23-14 victory for USC, which was ineligible for the postseason.
This time the Utes are at home, where their crowd helped carry them to the win over BYU the same day USC lost to Stanford.
Though Hays didn’t play in the USC game last year, he got a chance to experience the aura that surrounds USC.
“We went toe to toe with them at their home, and we got them at home this year, so we know we can play with anybody in the nation if we go out and execute and don’t make mistakes,” Hays said.