As frustrating and disappointing as the 2020 football season has been so far for Utah, with its first two games being canceled due to COVID-19 issues, in a way it’s fitting that the Utes’ opener is now lining up to be against No. 20 USC.
The Utes are the two-time defending Pac-12 South champions and the Trojans (2-0) are the Pac-12 South favorites. They are scheduled to meet Saturday (8:30 p.m. MST, ESPN) at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“I look at it as exciting. You want to play against the best. I feel like all the preparation we’ve been doing in the offseason has led us to this point,” said Ute linebacker Devin Lloyd. “I feel like 2020, coming back from this crazy year, what better way to start off than to go against the best team in the Pac-12 South. Two of the best teams. I feel like it’s a perfect matchup. I can’t wait.”
Reality is, USC hasn’t looked dominant in its victories. The Trojans had to rally in the fourth quarter against Arizona State and Arizona behind quarterback Kedon Slovis. Those were games USC could have lost.
Meanwhile, Utah’s introduction to Slovis last fall lasted just 36 seconds.
Slovis, then a freshman, suffered an injury on the Trojans’ first possession and he was replaced by Matt Fink, who led USC to a 30-23 upset of the then-No. 10 Utes.
More than one year later, Slovis will be taking snaps again against Utah. Last week at Arizona, he threw for 325 yards and led the Trojans on a pair of late drives that resulted in touchdowns, including the game-winner with 25 seconds remaining in a 34-30 win.
Clearly, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is impressed with the Trojans’ signal-caller.
“He presents a big challenge. He’s an excellent quarterback. He’s made some throws this year — that throw against Arizona State on fourth-and-11 to win the game was an incredible throw,” he said. “He put the ball in the only place it could have been put to be caught. He’s a guy that, from what I see on film, has a lot of poise, he’s composed. Nothing seems to get to him.
“He’s got a real leadership quality to him and their offense seems to respond to him. He’s got great receivers to throw to and a stable of backs that are very talented and a very athletic offensive line. He has an outstanding supporting cast. He’s performed very well in the first two games.”
Yet Slovis has fielded questions this week about his arm not looking full strength at times during the Arizona game.
“I think at times my mechanics get sloppy,” Slovis said. “I don’t know what it is, but I’ll get it fixed next week.”
Of course, Slovis has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including emerging star Drake London, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound receiver, who has caught 12 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown this season.
In the Trojans’ opener at home against Arizona State, Slovis threw a game-winning touchdown strike to London in a 28-27 victory.
What challenges will the young, inexperienced Utah defense face Saturday?
“Great playmakers as far as receivers down the field. Athletic O-line and they have a very good quarterback that can deliver it accurately all across the field,” Lloyd said. “They have an up-tempo offense so they’re going to try to spread us out and hit us with RPO and shots downfield. Like last year, it’s going to be a test. I think our guys are ready. We’re just excited for the challenge.”
Ute wide receiver Solomon Enis said he and his teammates started watching game film of USC as soon as they found out that last week’s game against UCLA was canceled.
“They have a lot of talent, as usual. They’re a solid team,” Enis said. “They have two games under their belt already. It’s going to be a good game. All I know is, we’ll be prepared and do whatever it takes to get ready for this game.”
USC might have an advantage Saturday because it has already played twice. But Utah is just looking forward to finally playing a game.
“The thing is that they do have two games under their belt. They are very talented and very athletic,” said running backs coach Kiel McDonald. “They are a good football team, but you play good football teams every week in the Pac-12. So, we are starting off with the Trojans and we couldn’t be more excited to play them as our opener.”