From a national perspective, the matchup between No. 7 USC and No. 20 Utah lost some of its luster after the Utes’ 42-32 loss at UCLA last week.

But for Utah, the defending Pac-12 champions, this is an opportunity to respond against a top-10 team. And it may be a must-win for the Utes, if they want to remain alive in the Pac-12 race. 

“We played our way into this situation; we have to play our way out of it. That’s the bottom line. Nobody feels sorry for us. … We’ve got to respond. That’s the operative word this week — respond.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham

“Coming out with a win,” said safety Cole Bishop, “would definitely help get the season back on track.”

On top of that, this may be the final time USC plays at Rice-Eccles Stadium, with the Trojans moving on to the Big Ten in 2024.

This week, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has pointed out several times that this situation, with a 4-2 record, feels familiar, like what they faced last year, when the Utes were 4-2 before winning seven of their next eight games.

“We find ourselves in a very similar situation as we did last year. It’s very similar,” Whittingham said. “We handled it well last year and we’ll see if we can handle it well this year. So that’s where we’re at.”

Quarterback Cam Rising has been rallying his teammates as Utah prepares for the second half of the season. 

“First, we’ve got to have unwavering belief in everything that we’re doing and make sure that the only thing that really matters is what’s going on inside the building and focus on that. Just focus on getting better and being ready to go for this weekend,” he said. “We’ve got a great locker room and it’s a family atmosphere.

“I think that right there establishes that feeling of trust and belief in your teammates. We’ve got to keep that rolling and make sure we keep talking about it.”

Tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham framed the team’s situation after the loss to the Bruins, and heading into the USC game. 

“Of course, it was not the result any of us were hoping for or expecting. But I believe it was six games in a row and then the Pac-12 championship game after that. The expectation is that we go 1-0 this week,” he said. “We’ve got a big challenge ahead — undefeated team, in the top (seven).

“We get them at home, which is a big bonus for us. We believe we have a definite advantage at home. The goal is to practice and prepare this week to take this first game and go 1-0.”

Another team leader, cornerback Clark Phillips III, is encouraging his teammates to “stay in the moment” as they face the Trojans. 

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“The team at hand is the battle at hand. Focus on the present. Don’t get too ahead of yourself; don’t stay in the past,” he said. “We know what happened last week. All that matters is this week. Let’s go out and dominate. Let’s have a good time and beat these guys.”

Wide receiver Devaughn Vele said this week, going into the showdown with USC, the focus has been on staying united. 

“The biggest thing is just understanding that we’re still a team. This is a team sport. We can’t be pointing fingers,” Vele said. “We have to understand that we still have a long season ahead of us. We’ve got a big game coming up against USC. We can’t be spending too much time dwelling on what happened at UCLA. We’ve got to learn from it and make sure we’re ready for this week.”

Beating USC would help Utah stay in contention for the Pac-12 title. 

“With this game coming up, I feel like this would be a very big statement game for us as a team of who we really are and what our identity is as a Utah football team,” Vele said. “You always feel pressure every game you play in, especially as a defending champion of the Pac-12.

“Everybody has you marked on their calendar. You’re always going to get their best, as we saw with UCLA. They’re a great team and they gave us everything that they had. We just have to respond better. … Some people are already writing us off. We understand that. As a team, we’ve got to stay together and be a close-knit team.” 

Freddie Whittingham said this team knows how to deal with trials — and this presents another opportunity to prove that. 

“In football, sometimes it’s harder to get over the losses than it is to enjoy the wins. When you have a big loss, what I tell my guys is, ‘Enthusiasm is common; endurance is rare.’ It’s easy to be enthusiastic when everything is going right,” he said. “When you’re winning and you’re rolling, energy is high and it’s much easier to be enthusiastic. What we need to do is have grit and be able to endure because this is a marathon. This isn’t a sprint.

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“They’ve got to have the mindset that adversity is going to happen and how they respond to that adversity is going to shape what happens next.”

The good news for Utah is that it is playing at home, where it has won 11 straight games. In fact, the Utes haven’t lost at Rice-Eccles Stadium since the first game of the 2020 season — against USC.

This is the annual “Dark Mode” game and the Utes will be wearing special, hand-painted helmets honoring fallen players Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe.

“It’s going to be a big challenge. We’ve got them at home at Rice-Eccles, which is a big plus,” Kyle Whittingham said. “Our guys really enjoy playing at home. Our home crowd gives us a big advantage.”

“It definitely helps with the fans and the atmosphere,” Bishop said about playing at home. “It’s going to be an awesome experience.”

Kyle Whittingham knows that against the Trojans, his offense needs to score consistently in the red zone and the defense needs to be better in stopping the run.  

“We played our way into this situation; we have to play our way out of it,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. Nobody feels sorry for us. … We’ve got to respond. That’s the operative word this week — respond.”

Utes on the air

No. 7 USC (6-0, 4-0)

at No. 20 Utah (4-2, 2-1)

Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT

Rice-Eccles Stadium

TV: Fox

Radio: ESPN 700