USC-Utah: Five Keys to Thursday Night’s Game

While Thursday night college football has become a bit of a quirky, fun novelty in the past, this Thursday, there’s nothing fun or quirky about USC’s trip to Utah. For the Trojans, a loss here would all but eliminate them from not only BCS title contention, but possibly Pac-12 championship contender status too. As for Utah, well, at 2-3, they’re just holding on for dear life.

So with two teams desperate for a win for two completely different reasons, who’ll have the edge Thursday evening?

Let’s take a look, with five keys to tonight’s game.

Matt Barkley Has To Be Better: Of all the problems that USC was expected to face this year, their golden armed (and golden-haired) quarterback never projected to be one of them. Only through four games, Matt Barkley has been as much a part of the Trojans problems as any potential solutions.

While some would blame weak offensive line play, the simple fact is that even when Barkley has had time to throw, he simply hasn’t been that good. Through a quarter of the season, Barkley is actually completing fewer passes (61.5 percent) for fewer yards (7.03 yards per completion) than he did dating back to his sophomore year, meaning that not only has Barkley regressed, but he has regressed big time.  

For the Trojans to win Thursday night, Barkley simply has to be better. USC doesn’t need him to put up the monster numbers he did last year, but what he’s done so far won’t cut it either.

Is John White IV Healthy: In a sports where there are 11 guys on each side of the ball, and upwards of 50 play in any given game, it doesn’t seem possible that a team’s successes and failures could come down to one player. But for Utah, that seems to be the case with running back John White IV.

Want to know a key stat entering this one? In his career, the Utes are 9-0 in games when White has rushed for 100 yards or more. That’s great to know, and in a lot of ways explains Utah’s woes; he’s rushed for 100 yards just once this season, in an opening weekend win against Northern Colorado. The Utes are 1-3 in the matchups where White has struggled.

Now in his defense, White has had an ankle injury sine early in the year meaning a lot of his struggles haven’t been his own fault. But with a week off to rest, the Utes will need him at his best, especially since…

Utah Needs To Find Balance On Offense: The truth is that when you’re ranked 112th nationally in total offense (which is where the Utes are), you can’t blame any one player for the struggles. Injuries haven’t helped Utah’s cause either, with White nicked up and quarterback Jordan Wynn lost for the season and his career to a shoulder injury.

The problem is that in college football every team suffers injuries, and nobody is going to feel much sympathy when you do. That’s also why the Utes need to figure out a way to get some semblance of balance from the offense. We already mentioned the run games struggles, and it doesn’t help that back-up quarterback Jon Hays is struggling too, completing just 58 percent of his passes. That’s not good.

It also leads to the obvious: If you can’t run the ball and can’t pass the ball, then chances are pretty good you’re not going to win football games.

And as things stand, Utah isn’t running the ball or passing the ball at all. Surprised they’re just 2-3 on the season?  

USC Needs To Establish Their Own Run Game: You know it’s been a weird year for USC when they’ve got two high-level running backs playing well, (Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal are both averaging 5+ yards per carry), yet somehow, the running game doesn’t seem all that effective.

Now granted, a lot of that has to do with a depleted and injured offensive line, one whose best player (center Khaled Holmes) has been in and out of the lineup since Week 2. Then again, it’s also like we said about Utah earlier: Nobody cares about your injuries, nor does anyone feel sorry for you because of them.

Well with USC’s offensive line no pseudo-healthy, they need their best effort to date. Not only to help the run game, but to try and hold back the Utes menacing defensive line.

Speaking of which, how about some…

Fun With Numbers: Did you know that the Utes have won their last eight Thursday games dating back to 2007? Did you also know that while Lane Kiffin is 9-1 in day games (kick-offs before 5 p.m.) he’s just 12-7 in night games since taking over at USC?

Anyone else maybe smelling an upset?

For all his articles, opinion and insight on college football, follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.