Jae C. Hong/Associated Press file photo
SALT LAKE CITY
In their ongoing bid to get back to where they once were – in the hunt for a top BCS bowl – the 13th-ranked Trojans will have to go where they haven’t ventured in 95 years.
It’s been that long since Southern California played Utah in Salt Lake City, and after a bye-week break for both teams, Utah fans finally will get a chance tonight to see what they’ve been missing.
“The stadium should be electric that night,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “It’s going to be a big event, and we need our players to feed off that. ... As long as we channel the energy and not let it get out of hand, I think we’ll be all right.”
USC coach Lane Kiffin hardly is a fan of night games, and he doesn’t expect this one will be easy.
“We’ll have our hands full,” Kiffin said. “They’re coming to play. Their last game means nothing. They’ll be fired up, and the crowd will be into it, and we’ll have to play really well.”
The “last game” Kiffin cited was Utah’s Pac-12 opener two weeks ago in which Arizona State tore through a once-proud Utes defense, rolling up 512 yards on offense and winning 37-7 in a game that really wasn’t that close.
“Arizona State really did a number on us in the throw game,” Whittingham said. “The play-action pass boot game really did the damage. We’ve got to continue to try to shore that up. Traditionally, we’ve had good pass defense and hope to get back on track.”
The Utes (2-2, 0-1 Pac-12) were without defensive end Joe Kruger in that game, and Whittingham wouldn’t say for sure if he’d be ready today.
Likewise, USC (3-1, 1-1) was without center Khaled Holmes in its only loss this year, a 21-14 road setback to Stanford that knocked the Trojans from the No. 2 ranking.
With Holmes in the lineup, the Trojans ran for 250-plus yards against Syracuse and Cal. When a right ankle injury kept Holmes out against Stanford, they managed only 26. Holmes limped off the field again in the fourth quarter against Cal two weeks ago.
“We’re hoping that (Holmes) plays,” Kiffin said. “Obviously there’s a big difference when he does.”
At least the Utes will have safety Eric Rowe back.
Utah will need every bit of help in its secondary against a passing attack led by Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Barkley and his dangerous duo of wide receivers, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee – even if their offense has struggled by USC standards.
The passing offense ranks just sixth in the Pac-12 and 46th nationally, though the Trojans still are averaging 33 points a game.
“They’re so explosive,” Whittingham said. “That’s the thing that really jumps out. Their receiving corps is as good as there is in the country. They have a big-play back. ... They work hard not to be one dimensional.”
No one will describe Utah’s offense as explosive.
The Utes’ passing offense is last in the Pac-12 and its scoring offense 11th – averaging just 23 points a game and only 17 in the last three.
Instead of playing one freshman on their offensive line, now they are forced to play two because of injury.
Siaosi Aiono, one of 37 California natives on Utah’s roster, will make his first start at right guard, while Jeremiah Poutasi will make only his third start at right tackle.
“They’re going to give us everything they got,” Utah senior quarterback Jon Hays said of the freshmen. “That’s all you can ask for out of them. They’re both good players with a bright future here. They have to step up, but they have the talent and the ability to do that.”
The good news is Utah is at home, where a Paint It Red crowd proved pivotal in a down-to-the-wire win over then-No. 25 BYU in Week 4. And they have the Cardinal blueprint for how to beat USC – controlling the line of scrimmage with their defensive front.
“Our mindset is we can win every game,” Utah senior center Tevita Stevens said. “Victory is always there. That game last year we battled down to the end. This year we’ll fight to the end, too.”