After a week of pep rallies, speeches, marching bands, Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, gala dinners, Rotary luncheons, hospital visits, practices and just plain killing time at the hotel, the 10th annual Freedom Bowl is finally here for two football teams.

In one corner we have the just-glad-to-be-here, eager-to-please University of Utah Utes; in the other corner we have the as-long-as-we-can-fit-it-in-our-day-planner, sort-of-glad-to-be-here University of Southern California Trojans.It's the Pac 10 versus the Western Athletic Conference; establishment versus the new kid on the block; old money versus new. It's the boys of Troy against the what's-a-Ute? Utes. Is anyone surprised that the Utes are big (as in 17 points) underdogs in tonight's game, which will begin at 7 p.m. MDT.

The Trojans have more talent, more tradition, more Lombardi candidates, more All-Americans, more past Heisman Trophy winners, more current NFL players, more future NFL players and even more Californians than the Utes. This is a team so rich in talent that Dick Butkus' kid sits on the bench.

All this notwithstanding, the Utes seem genuinely convinced they can upset the Trojans. "They're in for a surprise," says wide receiver Bryan Rowley.

Here is a look at some of the key factors in tonight's game:

The Rob Johnson Problem: Only a junior, Rob Johnson, USC's big (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) quarterback, would be a first-round NFL draft pick if he came out this year. Instead, he'll probably return for a serious run at the Heisman Trophy next season. This season he completed a superb 68.6 percent of his passes and set an NCAA record for lowest interception rate, with only 5 in 405 pass attempts. His passes reaped 3,285 yards and 26 touchdowns and compensated for a mediocre running game.

The Utes could be easy pickings for Johnson. Their secondary, crippled by injuries to nine defensive backs, has given up big pass plays all season. Cornerbacks Mark Swanson and Ernest Boyd are back in the lineup, but still aren't fully recovered from shoulder and leg injuries, respectively. They are backed up by tailback Keith Williams. Freshman safety Harold Lusk, who was a quarterback until midseason, has played only six games on defense - three of them against option teams.

"The biggest thing is we have to get a pass rush," says defensive coordinator Fred Whittingham. "If there's any one big factor in the game, that's it."

A pass rush would ease the pressure on Utah's patched-up secondary, but it won't be easy. The Trojan line averages 6-foot-5, 285 pounds and is anchored by 6-8, 295-pound All-American tackle Tony Boselli. "They're like BYU," says Whittingham, "and we did an exceptional job against BYU. We got pressure against the BYU quarterback - and we got five interceptions."

The Johnnie Morton Problem: Morton, a first-team All-American, is USC's all-time receiving leader. He catches anything in his zip code, and reminds many of Lynn Swann. He caught 78 passes this season for 1,373 yuards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 17.6 yards per catch. He has 873 yards more than USC's next best receiver, which means Morton is the man the Utes must stop.

That puts Utah in a bind. Whittingham says he can't double-team Morton because USC's other receivers can break big plays. They also can't single-cover Morton, because they don't have the cover talent to do it. So what now?

"I want to tell you something," says nickelback Cedric Crawford. "Nobody's been physical with him. They played off of him, and that's the biggest mistake you can make. You've got to jam him at the line every play. That's what we did to (Wyoming All-American) Ryan Yarborough. We didn't double team him; we jammed him, and he had, what, 64 yards.

"I'll tell you something else. We've done an extensive study of these guys, and they're very predictable. If they're in a certain formation, Morton runs a certain pattern. So now, when they line up in a certain formation, I know he's going to come inside, and I'll play him more inside. And if he still tries to come inside, I'll push him too far inside. We'll bump him and harrass him so he doesn't get to where he's going in time. We'll throw off his timing."

The Willie McGinest Mystery: As a junior last season, Willie McGinest played outside linebacker and collected 16 sacks and 23 tackles for loss; so naturally this season the Trojans moved him to defensive end, where he collected only 5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Observers of USC's practices this week report that the Trojans have been moving the 6-6, 245-pound McGinest - a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award - to linebacker in certain situations to free him for pass rushing duty and to create mismatches.

It could be a factor, but, as McBride says, "We've still got to block him wherever he is. We can't worry about it."

So forget we even mentioned it.

The Mike McCoy/Jamal Anderson Factor: Utah's Mike McCoy and Jamal Anderson were two of the hottest players in the country at the end of the regular season. McCoy, whothrew for 3,860 yards and 21 touchdowns this year, averaged 407 yards in the last six games. Anderson, vastly underused early in the season, rushed for 491 of his 958 yards and had 92 of his 168 carries in the last four games. He gives the Utes the big (244 pounds) back they need against a physical, Pac 10 defense.

Along with a wealth of receivers in Bryan Rowley, Henry Lusk, Deron Claiborne and Greg Hooks, McCoy and Anderson were two reasons why Utah ranked fifth nationally in total offense.

On the other hand, they Utes needed a prolific offense to offset a defense that ranked 95th nationally.

The USC defense was solid this season despite a world-class schedule, giving up 19 points and 340 yards per game. But there are a few things that should help Utah. The Trojans had only 12 interceptions and 16 sacks all season. And cornerback Jason Sehorn, who had half of USC's dozen interceptions, has a shoulder injury that will limit him to spot duty (read: non-tackle, sure pass situations). Safety Jason Oliver, a four-year starter, also is injured and won't play.

"They don't have enough good DBs to cover our four receivers man to man," says Rowley.

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The Intangible Factors: Who's on a bigger roll? Both Utah and USC produced their 7-5 seasons in similar fashion, with slow starts and fast finishes. USC was blown out in its opener, 31-9 by North Carolina; Utah was blown out in its opener, 38-0 by Arizona State. USC was 2-3 before winning five of its last seven games; Utah was 2-4 before winning five of its last six games.

The Trojans' schedule, which included five Top 25 teams and seven bowl teams, ranked second nationally in difficulty. They beat Houston, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, Stanford and Washington, lost to North Carolina, Penn State, Arizona, Notre Dame and UCLA (by six) and fell two yards short of the Rose Bowl.

The Utes' best opponent was Arizona State (as in 38-zip). Can a team that lost to Idaho ("Can you believe that?" marvels Crawford) and tied for fourth place in the WAC really hope to beat USC? The Utes have played in three bowl games, one in the last 29 years, and won two. The Trojans have played in 35, and won 22 - second most in history. Tradition? The Trojans have seven national titles, four Heisman winners, and 117 All-Americans.

The Trojans also have lost their last two games in Anaheim by routs, and they view the Freedom Bowl for what it is, a second-class bowl. Not the Utes. Any bowl is still a good bowl for them. This is the big-time, and they are hungry. This is a chance to make a name for themselves. Says McCoy, "We're definitely starting a new tradition in Utah."

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