|Utah hoping to finally kick off season vs. No. 20 USC|
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham just wants opening kickoff to arrive as the Utes attempt to open their season for the third time when they host No. 20 Southern California on Saturday night in Pac-12 play at Salt Lake City.
Utah's first two attempts were called off due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The school cited 17 confirmed positive COVID-19 tests within the program and another 11 program members in quarantine last Friday when it called off the following day's game at UCLA.
But Whittingham indicated Tuesday that the situation has improved since the latest cancellation and he is highly optimistic that the season will get underway against the Trojans (2-0, 2-0 Pac-12).
"Things are trending in the right direction for us as far as getting back to health and getting guys back out on the practice field," Whittingham said. "Right now, all of our efforts are geared toward getting ready for USC and we will hopefully be kicking off on Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. ET) on ESPN, national television."
Trojans coach Clay Helton also hopes to be standing on the sidelines of Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night as he looks for the second 3-0 start of his five seasons as the school's full-time coach.
"I'm hoping we get the opportunity to have a chance to compete with Utah," Helton said. "It looks like it's headed in that direction. Let's say our prayers and hopefully both teams will stay safe and stay trending toward the same direction."
USC took the hard route while winning its first two games as it scored late fourth-quarter touchdowns on both occasions.
Sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis threw two touchdown passes in the final 2:52 to rally the Trojans from a 13-point hole and post a 28-27 home victory over Arizona State in the opener. Last Saturday, USC received an 8-yard scoring run from senior running back Vavae Malepeai with 25 seconds left to record a 34-30 road win at Arizona.
"When it mattered the most, I didn't see any panic," Helton said. "They showed great poise. We felt extremely comfortable. It's what we do in practice each and every week. The guys executed to perfection."
Slovis completed 71.4 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception in the two wins. The Trojans averaged 527 yards of total offense but the defense has experienced issues while allowing 418 per game.
USC will be aiming to snap a three-game losing streak in Salt Lake City. But one of the challenges is how to prepare for a Utes' squad that doesn't have any 2020 film to break down.
Utah (11-3 in 2019) is being coy about its quarterback situation. Whittingham has reportedly decided on a starter but is listing seniors Drew Lisk and Jake Bentley and sophomore Cameron Rising as co-No. 1s on the depth chart.
Bentley started 33 games at South Carolina so he is easily the most experienced of the trio. Rising is a transfer from Texas while Lisk has thrown nine passes for the Utes.
Utah has known commodities on defense in junior linebacker Devin Lloyd (team-high 91 tackles last season) and junior defensive end Mika Tafua (tied for second in the nation with four fumble recoveries).
Whittingham said he is impressed with how his players have handled the disappointments of having their first two games canceled -- the first was a Nov. 7 home game against Arizona.
Junior receiver Solomon Enis said the team's mindset was the difference.
"You can't stress about what you can't control," Enis said. "What you can control is your effort and what you put into practice every day. It is about showing up. At the end of the day, it hurts, especially the day before the game and it gets canceled, but you come into the next week and you work the same way you did before, and you hope it works out the rest of the week."
--Field Level Media