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Dick Harmon: Expect Utes' defense to stop USC (+13 other picks)

Utah Utes linebacker Francis Bernard (36) tackles Arizona Wildcats running back Gary Brightwell (23) during the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.
Utah Utes linebacker Francis Bernard (36) tackles Arizona Wildcats running back Gary Brightwell (23) during the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

PROVO — Utah will host Southern Cal this weekend and should send the Trojans packing with a costly division defeat in the Pac-12 South.

It should be a stage Utah will salivate over and fans will relish. The legendary Trojans are in the crosshairs with the home team enjoying plenty of momentum after convincing wins over Stanford and Arizona.

Both teams are 4-2 overall. USC (3-1) and Colorado (2-1) have just one league loss and USC leads the division, while the Utes are 2-2. But the cross-eyed factor going in is that the Utes are better than Stanford but worse than Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars, while the Trojans are better than Washington State but couldn’t beat Stanford.

It will be an experienced Ute offense versus a USC offense trying to find a rhythm with a freshman quarterback. It will be a hungry, physical, dominating Utah defense simply delivering havoc and in the end, that will be the difference. USC scores about half as many points on the road than at home.

It will also be the third straight game Utah has faced a Pac-12 opponent with a significant injury to a star player. It’s like the script is being written to favor the league’s longest-tenured head coach, Kyle Whittingham. He must have a voodoo doll and long needle in his desk drawer.

Last week, preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Khalil Tate limped to the bench early never to return in the Utah-Arizona game. The week before, Stanford’s Heisman candidate Bryce Love did not play against the Utes due to injury. Utah would have won anyway, but it made Arizona's and Stanford’s offenses easier to defend.

This week, one of USC’s best defensive players, linebacker Porter Gustin from Utah’s Salem Hills High, won’t play. Gustin broke his ankle and is out for the season.

USC coach Clay Helton has called Gustin his “Thor,” a heroic Norse God figure made famous in comic books and movies.

“We have talented kids,” Helton told reporters this week. “It’s hard to replace a Porter Gustin from the totality of what he brings, from leadership, being a captain, but we have players who are going to make plays. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. It just always feels better when Porter’s sitting beside you, but now it’s somebody else’s turn.”

How big is the loss of Gustin? He leads the Pac-12 in sacks with seven. To see what a similar impact would be for Utah, imagine the Utes losing either of their two leading sack artists, Bradlee Anae (5) or Chase Hansen (4). Anae is tied for third and Hansen is tied for fifth in league sacks.

This game, for all intents and purposes, is the Pac-12 South championship game. The winner will have the inside track for the league’s playoff spot against the champion of the North if it can finish strong and Colorado stumbles.

There are some interesting matchups, least of all runners Zack Moss (5.6 ypc) versus Aca'Cedrick Ware (6.0 ypc). Both need big games to take the pressure of the QBs.

The Utes' defense will be facing a Trojan freshman quarterback in Elite 11 star JT Daniels. Ironically, both he and Utah’s starter Tyler Huntley have similar completions this season. Daniels has 118 and Huntley 108. Both rank toward the bottom in the league in pass efficiency ratings. Huntley is ninth at 134.7 and Daniels is 10th at 128.9.

This is a game Utah is expected to win at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The only way Utah loses is if the offense and special teams have three or more turnovers. Or, if USC’s talented receiver corps comes up with a series of debilitating scoring bombs and kind of pull a Washington State.

This week’s picks:

Michigan 24, Michigan State 17: Wolverine defense wins the day.

Oklahoma 34, Texas Christian 27: Sooners apply pressure to Frog D.

Wisconsin 28, Illinois 17: Badgers have tails to the wall.

Duke 21, Virginia 17: Too much celebration by Cavs after Miami.

Utah State 41, Wyoming 10: Aggies tasting an MWC title.

Washington 28, Colorado 21: Montez better than Browning but UW rises.

California 27, Oregon State 17: Bears find some consistency.

Fresno State 34, New Mexico 21: Bulldog speed overcomes Lobos.

UCLA 34, Arizona 17: Wildcats in search of an offense.

Hawaii 42, Nevada 34: Warriors rebound now back home.

San Diego State 42, San Jose State 14: Rocky Long too tough.

Southern Utah 21, Idaho 17: Thunderbirds simply stouter.

Weber State 33, Montana State 14: Jay Hill has more talent.

Utah 27, Southern California 21: Ute defense swarms Trojans.

Last week 10 for 14; overall 67 for 112