USC vs Utah: How the 2016 Ute Defense Matches Up

Oct 17, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici (2) is tackled by Utah Utes defensive ends Hunter Dimick (49) and Kylie Fitts (11) during the first half at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 17, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici (2) is tackled by Utah Utes defensive ends Hunter Dimick (49) and Kylie Fitts (11) during the first half at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

USC vs Utah see the Trojans’ struggling offensive line square off against a swarming Ute front ranked 2nd nationally in sacks.

It’s no secret that USC’s offense has been a nightmare early in 2016. They’ve scored just one touchdown against Power 5 teams, which forced head coach Clay Helton to enact a quick-hook and bench Max Browne in favor for Sam Darnold at quarterback.

Darnold’s reward for his first career start? A wet, rainy road game and a daunting opponent.

The Utes deploy a 4-2-5 defense under first-year defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley that takes pride in getting after the quarterback, disrupting passing lanes and forcing turnovers.

“You know when you’re playing a Kyle Whittingham defense, it’s going to be well coached,” Helton said earlier this week. “It’s going to be aggressive. They’re going to play Cover 1, Cover 3 and blitz and get after you.”

It all stems from a relentless pass rush.

Sack Lake City is Real and Spectacular

Since the Utes’ true seniors got on campus at the start of the 2013 season, Utah’s 146 sacks are the most in FBS. That’s to go with the highest sacks per game average during that span: 3.56.

For comparison, Alabama, who mauled USC’s offensive line in Week 1, has gotten to the quarterback once fewer per game during that stretch, with 2.56 sacks.

Long gone is sack machine Nate Orchard, but anchoring this year’s Utah defensive line are 6-foot-3, 272-pound defensive end Hunter Dimick and 6-foot-2, 310-pound defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei.

The younger brother of Star, Lowell could be the best interior defensive lineman the Trojans face all year. A first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2015, he clogs up running lanes in the middle and allows Dimick to crash in off the edge.

Dimick is back and firing on all cylinders after missing half of last season with a shoulder injury. He recorded a pair of sacks in last week’s game vs. San Jose State, which puts him on a collision course with Utah’s school record for career sacks. He’s just eight away.

“[Dimick] has really become a quality player,” Helton said. “I got to see him grow up and really become one of their best defensive linemen.”

Another familiar face, former USC commit Kylie Fitts, was supposed to be a stud edge rusher opposite of Dimick at right defensive end, but he’s out for the season with a foot injury.

It’s a significant loss for the Utes. He snagged seven sacks last season, in addition to a whopping 10 pass break-ups from batted balls.

But fortunately for Utah, a wealth of depth up front has given them protection to withstand injuries. Case in point, they’ve replaced Fitts with Pita Taumoepenu, a senior who’s appeared in 38 career games as a member of the defensive line rotation.

All told, Utah’s veteran four-man front is a nightmare of a matchup for a USC offensive line than has resembled a five-piece turnstile.

SEE MORE: Grading USC’s Offensive Performance vs. Stanford

They’ll stunt and twist repeatedly, which doesn’t bode well for an offensive line with an over-complicated blocking scheme full of pulls that often lead to missed assignments.

Though the Trojans have steadily improved from game to game, cutting down tackles for loss allowed from nine vs. Alabama to just four vs. Stanford, they’ve yet to show they can be consistent.

There is a couple of positives for USC however. The two best linemen from last week –left guard Damien Mama and right tackle Zach Banner– will square up immediately against Lotulelei and Dimick, who start at right defensive tackle and left defensive end, respectively.

Banner was the highest graded player on the Trojans’ offense by Pro Football Focus last week vs. Stanford, and will need to have another strong performance if Darnold is going to stay upright.

Then there’s the state of the running game. USC finally had success on the ground vs. Stanford, with Mama routinely punching holes on the left side for Justin Davis and Ronald Jones.

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Utah has been uncharacteristically susceptible to the run early in 2016, primarily on second down.

The Utes have allowed teams to rush for 6.26 yards per carry, with 29 percent of second down rushes amassing at least 10 yards.

The flip side is they haven’t given up much elsewhere.

Opponents are rushing for 2.73 yards per rush on first down, which put teams behind the chains and has led to blitzes and subsequently five sacks on third. When extracting those sacks, the Utes have held teams to just 2.80 yards per carry on third down.

Pass Rush Fuels Ball-Hawking Secondary

In 2015, a staggering 20.4 percent of drives against the Utah defense resulted in a turnover. That was the second-highest rate in FBS behind Georgia Tech, making Friday night not the most ideal game for USC to toss a freshman quarterback to the wolves in his first start.

The pass rush generated by the Ute front six allows the back five to be aggressive in coverage with quarterbacks routinely under duress.

RELATED: USC to Start Freshman QB Sam Darnold vs. Utah

Through three games this season, Utah is fifth in FBS with six interceptions to go with a defensive line that ranks fourth nationally in havoc rate.

Free safety Marcus Williams was an All-Pac-12 first-teamer as a sophomore last year, and has only improved to start the season. He’s had a pair of interceptions, a forced fumble and leads the defensive backs in tackles.

“I think [he] is one of the better guys not only in our league, but the nation,” Helton said. “[He is] very long, very rangey, and shows up on tape everywhere.”

At cornerback, Utah starts a pair of seniors in Dominique Hatfield and Reginald Porter. Hatfield had four interceptions a year ago, though he was most known around Los Angeles for being the mark of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s vicious stiff arm during last year’s matchup.

It might take more physical to get the most out of Smith-Schuster, as he’s been covered with blanket coverage throughout September.

As a result, the Bilnetnikoff Award candidate has only been targeted 20 times, which is partly the reason for USC deciding to add Adoree’ Jackson to the offense this week.

Helton said Jackson has between six and eight plays designed for him each week, He’s appeared on the field just once all season, but had a career-high six catches last year vs.Utah.

Utah’s Projected 2-Deep on Defense

Left End: Hunter Dimick (Sr.) / Bradlee Anae (Fr.)Left Tackle: Filipo Mokofisi (Jr.) / Pasoni Tasini (Sr.)Right Tackle: Lowell Lotulelei (Jr.) / Pasoni Tasini (Sr.)Right End: Pita Taumoepenu (Sr.) / Chris Hart (Fr.)Mac Linebacker: Sunia Tauteoli (Jr.) / Donavan Thompson (Fr.)Rover Linebacker: Cody Barton (So.) / Kavika Luafatasaga (Jr.)Left Cornerback: Dominique Hatfield (Sr.) / Casey Hughes (So.)Right Cornerback: Reginald Porter (Sr.) / Brian Allen (Sr.)Nickel Back: Justin Thomas (Sr.) / Boobie Hobbs (Jr.)Free Safety: Marcus Williams (Jr.) / Andre Godfrey (Jr.)Strong Safety: Chase Hansen (So.) / Jason Thompson (Sr.)

USC’s Projected 2-Deep on Offense

Wide Receiver: Darreus Rogers (Sr.) / Greene OR PittmanWide Receiver: Steven Mitchell (RS Jr.) OR Deontay Burnett (So.)Tight End: Taylor McNamara (RS Sr.) / Petite OR ImatorbhebheRight Tackle: Zach Banner (RS Sr.) / Chuma Edoga (So.)Right Guard: Viane Talamaivao (Jr.) / Jordan Simmons (RS Sr.)Center: Nico Falah (RS Jr.) / Khaliel Rodgers (RS Jr.)Left Guard: Damien Mama (Jr.) / Chris Brown (RS So.)Left Tackle: Chad Wheeler (RS Sr.) / Chuma Edoga (So.)Wide Receiver: JuJu Smith-Schuster (Jr.) / De’Quan Hampton (Sr.)Quarterback: Sam Darnold (RS Fr.) / Max Browne (RS Jr.)Running Back: Justin Davis (Sr.) / Ronald Jones II (So.)