(3) Utah Utes at USC Trojans (-3.5, 60.5 o/u)
The no. 3 Utah Utes (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12) will have arguably their toughest test of the season this Saturday when they head to southern California to face the USC Trojans (3-3, 1-2) at the Coliseum (7:30 PM Eastern).
Utah is the only undefeated team remaining in the Pac-12 after seven weeks. They survived a scare against Cal two weeks ago, but managed to edge out the Bears, 30-24, thanks to five interceptions off of top NFL prospect Jared Goff. The Utes had an easier time of it last week, handling Arizona State 34-28 and improving to 4-2 against the spread in the process. Utah managed another pick in that game and now lead the nation with 13 on the season.
“We have some guys back there with very good ball skills,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Probably the most important thing when those opportunities come along is that you capitalize on them.”
The offense isn’t exactly a juggernaut, but it’s been much better than most were expecting, averaging 36.5 PPG. Its best performance came in the team’s Pac-12 opener when it put up 62 points on the road against then-no. 13 Oregon (62-20).
USC also features a high-scoring offense (38.3 PPG), but the team has struggled over the last several weeks, dropping three of four. The plight of (former) head coach Steve Sarkisian – and his now very public battle with addiction – has undoubtedly contributed to the team’s slow start. Clay Helton, formerly the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, has taken over as the interim head coach.
Helton, like Sarkisian before hime, has been leaning heavily on the arm of erstwhile Heisman contender Cody Kessler (337 passing yards per game, 12th in the nation), but he’ll likely want to shake things up a bit against the Utes. If the Trojan offense becomes too predictable, Utah’s ball-hawking secondary is apt to add to its nation-leading pick numbers.
The number one job for the Trojan defense will be to limit Utah’s rushing attack. The Utes are averaging nearly two bills per game on the ground, which has allowed QB Travis Wilson (who really struggled at times last season) to play more of a passive, game-manager role under center. (Wilson has only 980 passing yards on the season and seven majors, but is also connecting at a 67-percent clip.)
Shutting down the run hasn’t exactly been USC’s modus operandi this year, though. The team gave up 214 rushing yards to Notre Dame last weekend. Ultimately, the nearly 600 yards mustered by Kessler and the offense weren’t enough as the team blew a fourth-quarter lead and fell 41-31 to the Irish in South Bend.
That setback came on the heels of a dreadful 17-12 home loss to Washington, USC’s second straight at the Coliseum (after falling 41-31 to Stanford back in late September). A loss to Utah would mark the Trojans’ first three-game home losing streak since 2000.
Somehow, USC comes into this game as a three-point favorite, its two-game home losing streak and coaching tumult notwithstanding. Not only does recent play favor the Utes, but so do the trends; the Utes took last season’s game, 24-21, covering as one-point home dogs. They are also 8-1 ATS in their last nine on the road, while the Trojans are just 1-4 ATS in their last five Pac-12 games.
Pick: Utah +3.5.
(Photo credit: NeonTommy (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/] via Creative Commons. Photo has been cropped.)
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