The Utah Utes football team is known predominantly for two things: consistency and a dominant front seven.
The Utes’ next opponent, the USC Trojans, have two major weapons, too. They are Robert Woods and Matt Barkley.
Sure the Trojans have other able skill players, and a strong front four on defense. But consistency they lack, as exemplified in the ‘tale of two halves’ game against Minnesota where USC showed fatigue and let the Golden Gophers make it close in the second half.
“Just little things we need to fix, little technique things like footwork, cutting off the right guy and stuff like that. But we’ll fix that this week and get rolling,” offensive tackle Matt Kalil said.
With an unsteady offensive line that has just three sure starters in Kalil, Khaled Holmes and Kevin Graf, expect a huge mismatch when the Trojans go against Utah’s strong defensive line.
“[Utah has] a very physical defense, especially in the front seven. We’re going to have our hands full, our offensive line would still be our number one concern by what happened in the game,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said.
A few penalties and a botched snap by Barkley’s protectors exposed USC’s line as weak and inexperienced.
“[Penalties] get you out of rhythm and it puts you in situations you obviously don’t want to be in, first and long, second and long, a couple times we were able to overcome those situations but it changes the offense for sure,” Holmes said.
What changes the offense is the musical chairs the guards have been playing all camp. The Trojans’ offensive line reeks of confusion. Even after week one of the regular season, offensive line coach James Cregg is trying out different guards. Against Minnesota, junior college transfer Jeremy Galten started in at left guard. When the Trojans practiced Tuesday, redshirt senior Martin Coleman replaced Galten.
“I was clueless to everything this morning,” Coleman said. “I have no idea what the coaches are [doing or] what their decisions are but I’m grateful I’m here.”
The Utes run a pro-style offense similar to USC, and have an offensive coordinator Norm Chow and offensive line coach Tim Davis that are familiar with the Trojans system. Chow and Davis donned cardinal and gold as offensive coaches from 2002-2004.
In the trenches for Utah, despite losing three starters last season, is a row of strong, physical players that head coach Kyle Whittingham likes to rotate to keep fresh. Two of those players are the Kruger brothers; huge sophomore Joe Kruger, the Utes' 6-7, 270-pound end and nose tackle Dave Kruger (6-5, 285) who started 10 games last season and saw time in all 13. Also joining the Kruger Bros. is tackle Star Lotulelei, who started three games in 2010. Defensive end Derrick Shelby has started 27 of the 34 games he's played.
In addition to Utah’s strong defensive line, Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn doesn’t have to worry about the players in front of him when he makes his call.
Protecting Wynn are two seniors at tackle in John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom, two juniors in center Tevita Stevens and right guard Sam Brenner and just one sophomore in left guard Vyncent Jones.
USC's Cregg has tried to maximize the linemen productivity after three crucial departures last season in Tyron Smith, Kris O’Dowd and Butch Lewis. But no matter what move you make, a young line rarely gives a quarterback confidence.
When Barkley looks to his blindside he sees the eldest of the line, Kalil, a junior. Holmes is a junior too, but he is getting first extended reps at center, coming from right guard in 2010. Graf, a sophomore, is still learning to be productive through four quarters and struggled to finish plays late in the Minnesota game. And the two guards have been so interchangeable that they’re essentially freshmen, no matter their listed grade.
“Four of those five guys had never played the position they were playing in a significant college game [before] so you’re going to have some growing pains,” Kiffin said. “And I had to remind myself of that too. Obviously I was very critical after the game but with so many players, offensively, I think the game was an example.”
But as assistant head coach Monte Kiffin said Tuesday, another week in the system can only make a player better.
However, the same could be said for Utah’s defensive line.
“Every game is a challenge. Of course Utah’s team is really good, especially their front four that’s the strength of their team,” Coleman said. “I feel like the opportunity to go against them will show us what we’re made of.”
With the Utes’ biggest strength countering USC’s biggest weakness, a Trojan win will not only show the linemen that they have what it takes, but they’ll show the rest of the country, too.