By Jon Wilner
Utah and USC have met more times in the past decade than they did over the previous 90 years. But within that short window, the unnatural rivals have produced a surprising number of hotly-anticipated, high-stakes thrillers.
— In 2014, a back-and-forth duel ended with the Utes covering 73 yards in 11 plays for the winning touchdown with eight seconds remaining.
— In 2016, Utah spoiled Sam Darnold’s first career start, rallying from 10 points down in the fourth quarter and scoring the game winner with 16 seconds left.
— The 2017 showdown ended in USC’s favor — but only after the Trojans scored 21 consecutive points to take a fourth-quarter lead, then stopped Utah’s game-winning two-point conversion attempt.
— And in 2019, USC backup quarterback Matt Fink threw for 351 yards and led an upset of the 10th-ranked Utes in an entertaining Friday night affair.
All in all, the Trojans and Utes have crafted one of the most compelling non-rivalry series in the conference.
Expect more of the same this weekend when the Utes visit the Coliseum for a primetime affair (FOX).
The plot, often easy to outline given the respective playing styles, is exceedingly difficult to project on this occasion.
The Utes haven’t been on the field in two weeks but spent the time grieving the death of defensive back Aaron Lowe. Their emotions will be sky high Saturday evening and require careful oversight. Will a letdown occur at some point?
Meanwhile, USC’s first month has featured enough twists and turns to last a season. When the Trojans aren’t winning big, they’re losing big. Or firing a coach. Or changing quarterbacks. Or doing Trojan things.
Neither team is ranked; both have two losses. But the Utes (2-2/1-0) are unbeaten in conference play and very much in the division race. USC (3-2/2-2) needs help but isn’t cooked just yet.
Although the quality of play might not meet past standards, the drama should be worthy of primetime.
To the picks …
Last week: 3-2
Five-star special: 4-1
All picks against the spread
Lines taken from vegasinsider.com
All times Pacific
Stanford +11.5 at Arizona State (Friday)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
Comment: ASU owns a significant advantage in athleticism, but the Cardinal faced a similar issue last week and didn’t flinch. The short week adds an interesting dynamic with both teams fresh off major victories: The Sun Devils thumped UCLA in the Rose Bowl in a homecoming for dozens of players raised in Southern California; Stanford rallied to beat No. 3 Oregon in overtime. Which team is able to recalibrate quickly and make the most of its limited preparation time? Our guess: The visitor. Last possession wins. Pick: Stanford
Oregon State -3.5 at Washington State
Kickoff: 1 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks
Comment: A must-win game for the Beavers if they hope to keep pace in the North race and for the Cougars if they want to widen their path to the postseason. This has been a lopsided series of late, with WSU winning seven in a row (and scoring 50+ points in four of those games). We have been nearly as impressed with the Cougars’ defense as with OSU’s offense, which means the other matchup should frame the outcome: WSU’s erratic offense against the opportunistic OSU defense. Pick: Oregon State
Utah +3 at USC
Kickoff: 5 p.m. on FOX
Comment: The Trojans have alternated between decisive victory (San Jose State, WSU and Colorado) and decisive defeat (Stanford, OSU). This week, the pendulum seemingly swings toward defeat, except we’re skeptical of Utah’s execution given the deep emotions of the past fortnight. To watch: How Utah’s stingy pass defense fares against USC receiver Drake London. Also, will Utah’s running game find its rhythm against a vulnerable Trojans defense? Could be a field goal game. Targeting ejections not advised. Pick: USC
UCLA -16 at Arizona
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
Comment: The Bruins are vulnerable after being run off their home field by ASU, but are the Wildcats capable of taking advantage? To an extent, yes. The extra week to prepare undoubtedly helped quarterback Jordan McCloud get more comfortable in the offense and gave the porous defense time to practice the fundamentals of tackling. Toss all the factors into a cauldron and the result should be a close game for three quarters, with UCLA’s offensive line and running game securing a narrow victory down the stretch. Pick: Arizona
Five-star special: Arizona. We see two ways to get this right: If the game isn’t in doubt in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats could sneak through the back door and cover the 16 with a late score.
Straight-up winners: ASU, Oregon State, USC and UCLA.
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