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Things are about to get serious: Utah Utes entering the games-that-really-count part of the season

Utes look to live up to lofty expectations as they prepare to kick off Pac-12 slate Friday night at USC

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham coaches in Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. USC won 28-27.
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham coaches in Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. USC won 28-27.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

LOS ANGELES — Now comes the part that counts for the 10th-ranked Utah Utes. They open Pac-12 play Friday night (7 p.m., FS1) against USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham noted that the Utes did everything they expected and hoped for in nonconference wins over BYU, Northern Illinois and Idaho State.

The remainder of their season is filled with Pac-12 foes as Utah seeks to repeat as South Division champions and pursue expectations (according to the league’s preseason media poll) as the team to beat for the conference crown.

Switching gears, acknowledged Whittingham, is always a challenge.

“You have to keep the team on somewhat of an even keel. You want to have energy and emotion and be juiced up for the game, but you have to play within the framework of the offense and the defense,” Whittingham said. “You have to make sure that you don’t let your emotions get the best of you. This is a mature team. This team seems to handle their business very well and my guess is that we will go down there, not overreact and just play our game.”

Thus far, things have gone extremely well. The offense has performed well under senior quarterback Tyler Huntley — turning the ball over just once and not giving up a single sack through three games. Huntley has completed 42 of 54 passes for 602 yards with four touchdowns.

“Tyler’s a very gifted athlete. He’s very motivated and driven. He’s doing a nice job,” said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. “He’s got plenty of things to improve on and he’s working hard at it every day.”

Ludwig is particularly pleased that the offense plays hard and is tightening things up, refining and continuing to grow and develop as a unit.

“The guys play with great passion and effort,” Ludwig said. “So that’s a great starting point for us.”

Joining Huntley in setting the pace is senior running back Zack Moss. He’s rushed for 373 yards this season and is closing in on becoming the program’s career rushing leader — trailing record-holder Eddie Johnson (1984-88) by just 215 yards.

Ludwig noted that Moss excels on several fronts.

“If the play is not blocked exactly right, Zack is going to make it right. So you’ve got great appreciation for that as a play-caller,” Ludwig said. “His vision is outstanding and then his physicality at the end of the runs has really been impressive.”

Utah’s defense is also doing good things. The Utes head to USC with a run of six consecutive scoreless quarters. Linebackers Devin Lloyd and Francis Bernard top the team in tackles with 24 and 22 stops, respectively.

Lloyd, a sophomore, stepped into a starting role when Penn State transfer Manny Bowen opted to retire before camp started.

“I knew that after working with him through spring ball that (Lloyd) was a pretty dynamic player,” said linebackers coach Colton Swan. “We’re still constantly fine-tuning little things, which I don’t care if you’re a freshman or a senior you should always be doing that. But we know he’s an explosive player and that he’s got a lot of potential.”

Lloyd has a team-high 4.5 tackles for loss. Defensive end Bradlee Anae has three sacks and safety Julian Blackmon has two interceptions. Cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson and Tareke Lewis each have three pass breakups.

This week the defense is determined to make USC quarterback Kedon Slovis, a true freshman, as uncomfortable as possible Friday night. He threw three interceptions in last week’s 30-27 overtime loss at BYU.

Senior safety Terrell Burgess expects Slovis to be more comfortable this week playing at home.

“We need to make sure that we flutter him a little bit — make sure he’s on his toes, make sure he stays on his Ps and Qs just like we’ll be on ours,” Burgess said. “And we’ll just come out there and battle I guess.”

USC has proven to be a tough stop for the Utes. They haven’t won at the Coliseum since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. The skid in Los Angeles, in fact, dates all the way back to 1916 — although the teams didn’t play on a regular basis until competing in the same conference.

“I guess everyone is entitled to a bad century, so this game fortunately — in our opinion — doesn’t have anything to do with the last 100 years,” Whittingham said. “It is its own entity, new challenge. History hasn’t been good to us in that place, but history has no bearing on this year.”

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Utes on the air

No. 10 Utah (3-0) at USC (2-1)

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Friday, 7 p.m. (MT)


Radio: ESPN 700AM