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Coaching change, QB injuries, surprising losses — USC has dealt with its own kind of adversity as Utah comes to town

USC head coach Clay Helton was fired on Sept. 13, just two days after the Trojans fell 42-28 to Stanford. USC is now being led by interim coach Donte Williams. The Trojans already have two conference losses.

Southern California head coach Donte Williams stands on the field before an NCAA college football game against Oregon State Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

Just as Utah can say this season hasn’t gone anything like it had expected back in August, USC can say the same.

The circumstances, of course, are very different. But both programs, which were among the favorites to win the Pac-12 South going into the 2021 campaign, have faced plenty of adversity.

The Utes visit the Trojans Saturday (6 p.m. MDT, FOX).

USC head coach Clay Helton was fired on Sept. 13, just two days after the Trojans fell 42-28 to Stanford. USC (3-2, 2-2) is now being led by interim coach Donte Williams. The Trojans already have two conference losses.

The week after the loss to Stanford, at Washington State, USC quarterback Kedon Slovis went down with an injury. He was replaced by former Corner Canyon star Jaxson Dart, who enrolled at USC last spring after graduating early from high school. He earned national prep of the year honors.

In Dart’s unexpected USC debut, he rallied the Trojans to a 45-14 victory. The freshman completed 30 of 46 passes for 391 yards — the 391 yards set a new USC record for most passing yards in a debut. He also threw four touchdowns and two interceptions. He ran six times for 32 yards.

However, Dart, the son of former Utah safety Brandon Dart (1994-96, 1999-2000) injured the meniscus in his right knee, requiring surgery. He returned to practice earlier this week while wearing a brace on his knee.

“Still week to week, still got to get doctor clearance,” Williams told The Los Angeles Times about Dart.

Just when it looked like the Trojans were figuring things out, they got steamrolled at home by Oregon State, 45-27.

Then last week at Colorado, Slovis threw for 276 yards and three touchdowns in his finest performance of the season.

“Right now, I like what I see from Kedon,” Williams said. “The look in his eyes right here — the eyes never lie — and the look in his eyes right now are really good.”

In the 37-14 win against the Buffaloes, USC wide receiver Drake London caught nine passes for 130 yards and a touchdown while running back Keaontay Ingram rushed 14 times for 124 yards.

As the Utes are aware, the Trojans’ Air Raid offense can be dangerous.

“Offensively, the receiver is terrific. That London kid is as good as there is in the country, maybe the best in the country,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s certainly a weapon for them. Slovis played well against Colorado and they ran the ball exceptionally well. Colorado was almost daring them to run the ball with some of their schemes and their fronts — and they did.”

Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III is confident that defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley will have the defensive backs ready.

“Coach Scalley prepares us. He does a great job doing so. We’ve got to execute our assignments,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to have great coverage and we’ve got to make plays on third downs. That’s our emphasis. We have to dominate.”

USC edge rusher Drake Jackson recorded a pair of sacks against the Buffaloes and the Trojans limited Colorado to 80 yards rushing.

“They’re a really talented group. They played really well the other day,” Utah offensive line coach Jim Harding said of USC’s defensive line. “We recognize that the matchups and the overall approach is going to have to pick up this week and I think our guys will be ready for it.”

Whittingham understands the road test facing his team.

“USC is a big challenge. I know they’ve dropped a couple of ball games this year but they’re as talented as they ever are,” he said. “A high level of talent is what they have. Our work is cut out for us. It’s on the road, at the Coliseum, which has been a brutal place for us to play. We haven’t had a lot of success down there, if any. We’ve got to prepare and get ready and move forward, which our team is ready to do.”

Meanwhile, with the USC job being one of the most high-profile in the country, there’s plenty of speculation about who will be coaching the Trojans next season. The school is carrying out its first head coaching search in eight years.

Among the likely candidates, according to the L.A. Times, include Penn State’s James Franklin, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and BYU’s Kalani Sitake.

After Helton’s firing, Whittingham expressed his support.

“Clay’s a friend of mine. I think he’s a heckuva football coach. It’s a brutal business. When you sign up for this business, you know that this is part of the deal,” he said. “Right, wrong or indifferent, it’s reality. I wish him the best. I’m sure he’ll land on his feet because he’s a quality coach and a quality person.”

On Saturday, two teams that have dealt with varying degrees of adversity collide at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

That’s a place where Utah has never won. But the Utes are hoping to change that.

“They have a lot of good players and they’re usually well-coached,” said defensive line coach Lewis Powell. “We’re excited to play in the Coliseum and bring home the ‘W.’”