There’s just one team among the six who occupy the division who has not yet represented the Pac-12 South in the conference title game. That might be about to change.
Utah beat up and bullied defending champion USC 41-28 on Saturday night in Salt Lake City — in a game that wasn’t even that close — as the Utes managed to wrestle control of the division standings and finally start looking like the team that was expected to play at this level.
The outing continued a string of encouraging performances for the Utes on offense as they may finally be able to say they’ve turned a corner on that side of the ball. QB Tyler Huntley had only a few misfires in throwing for 341 yards and four touchdowns in guiding the team to a win in what might be his best overall game so far as a starter. For good measure the dual-threat added a touchdown on the ground as well to go with his 33 yards rushing, forming a nice backfield tandem with running mate Zack Moss toting the rock 25 times for 136 yards.
Defensively the group was just as stout as we’ve come to expect from Kyle Whittingham. In addition to holding the Trojans to only 3.8 yards per play and 3-of-14 on third down, the Utes really only gave up one sustained scoring drive in the contest and should have had an interception that passed through the hands of two defenders on another score they allowed. If not for two turnovers that put them in bad spots, the runaway score could have been even more lopsided.
Equally to blame was the USC offense though. J.T. Daniels looked every bit like a true freshman QB on the road in going 6-of-16 for 89 yards, a score, and two picks. He missed most of the fourth quarter after leaving with a concussion and backup Matt Fink showed why he might be the go-to under center for the team next week with a 6-of-7 outing that included a late touchdown pass.
Of course, neither signal-caller had any sort of time to throw from the pocket and the team managed to rush for only 2.4 yards per carry to compound their issues.
The loss, especially in such demoralizing fashion, is sure to increase fan frustration in cardinal and gold with head coach Clay Helton. While the program was expected to undergo a bit of a rebuilding campaign, the team has struggled in all three phases and looked fairly overmatched against the better teams they’ve faced. If not for a controversial win over Washington State, the Trojans would all but be out of the league race and will need massive help to rally and make it back to Levi’s Stadium for the Pac-12 title game.
That will not be the case for the Utes, who control their destiny at the moment and face winnable games in the next two weeks against UCLA and Arizona State before a season-defining stretch against Oregon (at home) and at Colorado. While the early returns were not good for Utah as they got off to a slow start to 2018, it appears they’ve shook the rust off and are now firmly looking like the team to beat in the Pac-12 South.