The USC Trojans will be marching into their home stadium on Saturday with a 3-2 overall record and 2-2 conference record to face the Utah Utes, who have one overall win more than them and are coming off a bye week.
The Utes’ only conference game was a win two weeks ago against the same Washington State team that the Trojans dominated in Pullman.
There can be some positives to pull from each team’s matchup against the Cougars, but it’s all about how each team is going to come into this game.
USC has much more to lose from this game than Utah, so the Utes will be taking advantage of the little mistakes made by the Trojans players. But Utah isn’t very good away from home this season with a 0-2 record.
Here are the X-Factors for Saturday’s game.
USC Offensive Line
The game will be dictated by how well the offensive line can exert its dominance. If they are clicking, the running game and the passing game have a good chance of being successful against a good, deep Utah defensive line. They have to also make sure penalties are limited on their part and force the defensive front into penalties whenever they can.
There’s one thing interim head coach Donte Williams is taking from last week’s win at Colorado and carrying over to this week’s game.
“Controlling the line of scrimmage — I mean, definitely — and getting off the field when it counts,” he said following Tuesday’s practice. “So, controlling the line of scrimmage, us having an energetic sideline, us being energetic on the field — I want that to carry over, not just for the next game but the rest of the season.”
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said after Tuesday’s practice that he respects Utah’s defense for staying true to what they do and not changing schemes for each team.
“I do think there will be some pressures, but like I said, I don’t think percentage-wise, they’re going to be off the charts and bring way more pressure than we’ve seen,” he said Tuesday. “But they do have good players — they’re strong and they’re powerful — and we’re going to have to do a great job protecting and being physical upfront to get the offense to move the way we need to move.”
USC Running Backs
There’s been a lot of Keaontay Ingram in the last few games, but there’s also been some Vavae Malepeai and, last game, Darwin Barlow. Having three backs in the mix can be overwhelming sometimes, but it seems like they each understand how they are going to be used and that the competition within every game can change the order of importance in each player.
With Barlow back in the mix after being sidelined with an injury dating back to Fall camp, Williams said Barlow is a guy that can make things happen if given the chance.
“For us, it’s a game by game, day by day thing that we have going on because we want competition, so the way we’re practicing, you have competition and at least it’s always open,” Williams said Tuesday. “If you got a guy that always knows he’s the starter and a guy that always knows he’s the backup, they won’t compete as hard, so [with USC] you’re competing everyday — just like life.”
Barlow would rather have a few solid carries than a dozen average carries.
“In this day and time in football, a running back never wants to have that many carries because you’re going to go in the league and you’re only expected to play [about] five years,” Barlow said Tuesday. “So you’d rather have a 1-2 punch or split carries because it’s just keeping your body healthy, allowing you to stay fresh, and when your number is called, be able to hit explosive runs, you know. And just being out [injured], it’s just made me hungrier, and then when Coach [Mike] Jinks called my name [last week], I was just ready.”
USC Defensive Front
Utah QB Cameron Rising isn’t afraid to get out of the pocket and run with the ball. He averages a little less than eight yards a carry so far in two games. He throws the ball well with about a 60% completion rate, but if enough pressure gets to him, he might make some mistakes with the ball. If the defensive line can get through the Utah offensive line or the USC linebackers are able to get into coverage, he may throw an interception or two. The Trojans have eight sacks this season, and it’s expected that they keep it up. In addition to the sacks, USC has seven interceptions on the season, with linebacker Drake Jackson’s in the first game being the lone interception by a linebacker. They have to step it up and get into the action.
USC defensive lineman Nick Figueroa said Utah is a physical group that is going to try to take control right away.
“We’re just playing assignment-based football, making sure we have great edges, whether that be in pass-rush or against a run, and making that a point of emphasis in practice so it can show up in the game,” he said after Wednesday practice. “[They have] lots of talented running backs, tons of receivers — you know, they’re motivated to play too, and at home in the Coliseum, we have a lot to prove.”
Utah Offensive Line
Utah’s offensive line is big, and they’ve done a lot to only allow one sack on Rising — that one coming last week against Washington State. If they can keep it up and get the offense rolling down the field, USC is going to be in for a very long game.
USC safety Chase Williams said Utah has a good offense and they’re a team that is expected to use their running game a lot.
“They have big, physical running backs, they have a physical offensive line, good receivers as well, and a quarterback that can throw,” he said after Wednesday’s practice. “I think that they’re definitely a threat in the game … I think just going into this game, we have to play the run very hard but also stay on key with play actions and passing route — things like that.”
The Utah secondary has to do something to limit USC wide receiver Drake London. It is easier said than done, but if Utah wants to be successful in this game, London has to have a similar game to USC’s against Stanford when he had 68 yards. If he gets limited, USC may have to resort to rushing the ball — which we’ve seen isn’t as consistent as USC wants it to be.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis said last week, USC is going to have to see what the Utah defense gives them and adjust things during the game so they can come out with a win.
It’s going to be about who makes the better adjustments throughout the game.
Utah Tight Ends
The duo of tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid account for a lot of yards, and it has been working for them so far. Utah has wide receivers who are targeted and account for receptions, but the success of the tight ends can be the difference-maker in this game. USC has given up an average of almost 19 yards per catch to tight ends in four games. With both averaging about nine yards per catch and 16 yards per catch, respectively, this can mean a big problem for the Trojans’ defense if they don’t find a way to clean it up.
The game is going to be great, and after back-to-back embarrassing losses to conference teams at home in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, the Trojans definitely have to come out swinging and execute near perfectly.
Kickoff is at 5 p.m. PST, and if you’re at home, you can catch it on FOX.