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The program that most in the Pac-12 measure themselves against finds itself coming up short so far this season.
The last conference program to win a national title, USC has long been the benchmark of talent and success in the West. But this week as No. 24 Utah (3-0) hosts Southern Cal in a Friday blackout game on Fox Sports 1, the Trojans are struggling to live up to their own reputation.
A 1-2 start, including drubbings by top-10 programs Alabama and Stanford, has given the Trojans something that is patently unfamiliar to them: desperation. And while their start hasn't inspired much confidence in Los Angeles, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham says that edge makes them perhaps even more of a threat in the Utes' league opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"They might be the most talented 1-2 team in the country," he said. "They're dangerous."
There's a school of thought that a predator is never more dangerous than when cornered and USC has definitely been backed against a wall by its early underwhelming results.
After a 52-6 mauling at the hands of reigning national champion Alabama, the Trojans bounced back with a convincing 45-7 win over Utah State. But momentum was stopped again in a 27-10 loss to Stanford over the weekend, only miles away from where Utah was running over San Jose State. The game had penalties galore, missed assignments on Heisman contender Christian McCaffrey, and dysfunctional play-calling on offense.
Clay Helton, awarded the permanent job last year by outgoing athletic director Pat Haden, has come under fire for the 1-4 start to his tenure, including two losses to the Cardinal. He is facing mounting criticism this week after the Trojans had a fourth and 6 at the 50, trailing the Cardinal by 17 points with nine minutes left and Helton chose to punt.
The LA Daily News said the loss was personified by "disorganization and ridiculous decisions." LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke, who supported Helton's initial hiring, wrote that Helton's tenure at USC is "not a deal that anybody is buying."
Off-field drama has been just as tumultuous as on-field results: Trojan linebacker Osa Masina, a Utah native who graduated from Brighton High, was charged with multiple felonies in connection with a sexual assault in Utah and is under investigation in California, along with teammate Don Hill. USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster also made headlines recently for fighting a teammate in practice and stalking off to stew alone before coaches persuaded him to return.
Then again, the Utes know better than to count out USC in the face of chaos. The Trojans ended then-No. 3-ranked Utah's perfect season last year, dealing the Utes a 42-24 loss and dominating most of the game. It was only weeks after USC had fired Steve Sarkisian, a messy incident that some opined would disrupt the team's focus.
Whittingham said Utah enters the week with complete respect for USC, despite the sluggish start. So do the players.
"I don't pay attention to their record at all," quarterback Troy Williams. "They have a lot of talent over there. Plenty of guys who can make plays on both sides of the ball. … They played two great teams, so you just have to be conscious of the caliber of the team they are and respect them."
The Utes are fretfully aware of USC's playmakers: The secondary got an up-close experience with Smith-Schuster, who caught eight passes for 143 yards and whose stiff-arm of Dominique Hatfield made SportsCenter. Linebacker Cameron Smith made a rare hat trick of interceptions. Cornerback Adoree Jackson has burned Utah before with a kick return for a touchdown.
The Utes will also come face-to-face with a former teammate: defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu. The senior transferred in the offseason and is now starting for USC. Whittingham was reluctant to talk about seeing his former player suiting up for a South Division opponent.
"Stevie made his decision, we wish him well, and that's just kind of it," Whittingham said. "We worry about our own guys right now."
For its own part, Utah is feeling confident after its 3-0 nonconference start. The Utes are No. 2 nationally in sacks (15) after racking up 10 against San Jose State, and boast the No. 8 pass-efficiency defense in the country. While the offense still isn't as efficient as Whittingham would like in the red zone, he said the offensive line and first-year starter Williams are improving.
Utah's goal of winning its first Pac-12 South title seems possible, given the conference's early struggles. But the Utes are determined to get the campaign off on the right foot no matter how wounded their upcoming foe appears.
"You don't prepare any differently within your system," Whittingham said. "But we want to try to challenge for that Pac-12 South title, and this is the first step in that regard."
USC at No. 24 Utah
P Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • FS1
USC's ugly start
Since being ranked No. 20 in the preseason AP poll, the Trojans have struggled to live up to expectations:
• First 1-2 start since 2001, the first year of the Pete Carroll era
• 52-6 loss to Alabama was worst loss since 1966
• Clay Helton is 1-4 since being named permanent head coach
• Team is No. 108 in scoring offense (20.3), No. 81 in scoring defense (28.7)