USC Football: How the Utah Defense Matches up with Troy’s Offense


The No. 20 USC Trojans have a tough test on their hands this weekend as they prepare to face the stout defensive front of the No. 19 Utah Utes in Salt Lake City.

Utah represents the strongest defensive unit USC football will face this season and home-field advantage could become a major and intimidating factor for Cody Kessler and the Trojan offensive attack.

Surviving the Onslaught

Nate Orchard and Utah’s front line lead the nation in sacks, sacks per game and tackles for loss per game. Orchard himself checks in second nationally in sacks.

It might be easy to look at those numbers and wonder if they’re inflated by an outrageous ten sack performance against UCLA, but the Utes led the nation in that category going into that game and they have not taken their foot off the gas yet.

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So it should be no surprise that the Utes thrive off disrupting opposing offenses by winning the battle in the trenches.

Orchard is the undisputed danger man and he’ll be attacking Cody Kessler’s blindside. However, he’s not the only weapon on Utah’s stacked defensive line. Hunter Dimick sits on the other side of the line and makes teams pay for the attention put on Orchard.

Rover linebacker Jared Norris is also a threat in the pass rush, but his influence doesn’t end there. He leads the Utes in tackles and he’s tied for third in the Pac-12 with a mark of 58.

That’s a mark of the Utah defense as a whole, which also makes a meal out of running backs every weekend. Behind only Stanford in rush defense, the Utes are more than capable of overpowering the Trojan front and stifling Buck Allen on the ground.

For USC, the key will be outwitting them with effective use of screens.

Protect the Ball

Utah trails USC alone in interceptions this season, having pulled in nine. Three of those came against Michigan but they’ve logged at least one pick in each game since.

The Trojans boast a quarterback who has made a living off protecting the ball but with the pressure sure to become a factor, Kessler will need to do an exceptional job keeping the ball out of enemy hands.

Sep 6, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Utes linebacker Jared Norris (41) during the first half against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah won 59-27. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker Gionni Paul has only played four games but he’s nabbed three interceptions already, which is second in the Pac-12.

The Utes next biggest threat to pull in a pick is safety Tevin Carter, who missed the Oregon State game with injury and is questionable for the game this weekend.

Eric Rowe, who has returned an interception for a touchdown, could move from cornerback back to free safety to cover Carter’s absence.

Quick Start

Like USC, Utah’s defense is highly effective in the first quarter but they’ve been vulnerable late in the game.

The Utes have given up a total of ten points in the opening period. By far their worst interval is the fourth, in which they’ve conceded 51.

In fact, their lone loss this season came courtesy of 14 unanswered points from Washington State to close out the fourth quarter.

The two close conference games that followed also featured double-digit scoring in the final period — UCLA scored 14 and Oregon State put up 10 to force overtime.

On the other hand, USC’s worst scoring quarter is also the final one. One team likely need to break their fourth quarter habits this weekend and the one who does will likely get the victory.

What the stats say…

  • Though it hasn’t felt that way for most of the season, USC’s offense is actually ranked particularly high in terms of offensive efficiency. This week they face a near equally ranked defense in terms of efficiency.
  • One thing Utah has struggled to contend with on defense is third down conversions. Allowing a conversion rate of 40%, the Utes rank ninth in the conference. That’s reflected in their below average methodical drive percentage, which accounts for opposition drives that last for 10 or more plays, and three-and-out percentage, which tracks oppositions drives that fail to gain a first down.
  • The Utes are exceedingly effective at stopping the run. They’ve held backs to an average of 2.84 yards per carry this season which is tops in the Pac-12 and sixth nationally.

Projected Starting Lineups

Utah Defense:LE #49 Hunter DimickDT #93 Lowell LotuleleiNT #45 Filipo MokofisiRE #8 Nate OrchardSLB #51 Jason FanaikaMLB #13 Gionni PaulROVER #41 Jared NorrisCB #18 Eric RoweCB #15 Dominique HatfieldNICKEL #12 Justin ThomasFS #7 Andre GodfreySS #4 Brian Blechen

USC Offense:WR #9 JuJu SmithWR #15 Nelson AgholorTE #82 Randall TelferRT #73 Zach BannerRG #51 Damien Mama OR #60 Viane TalamaivaoC #75 Max TuerkLG #50 Toa LobendahnLT #72 Chad WheelerWR #8 George FarmerQB #6 Cody KesslerFB #38 Jahleel PinnerTB #37 Javorius Allen