USC football’s reinforced the importance of third downs on both sides of the ball on Wednesday, with particular emphasis on the offense doing their part.
The last two times USC football has faced off with Colorado, the game has been a tight battle decided by small margins. So it’s no surprise head coach Clay Helton called attention to the importance of critical moments when discussing the upcoming game.
“That’s what this game is going to be about,” Helton said after practice on Wednesday. “Converting on third downs versus a lot of pressure and being able to get off the field defensively.”
Getting off the field will be a challenge with Steven Montez commanding Colorado’s offense. The junior quarterback is completing 75 percent of his passes, but Helton took the time to highlight to his team just how much he’s done to extend plays and drives with more than just his arm.
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“You’re talking about a 6-foot-5 body, almost 230 pounds,” Helton said. “You look at what he’s doing right now, escaping and creating, not only running the ball and pulling it down, but actually finding his receivers.”
Montez won’t make it easy on a USC pass rush still trying to find its groove, but it is imperative that they make their plays, especially on third down.
“We’re going to need to contain him and get off the field,” Helton said.
As much importance as USC’s defensive effort will have on the outcome of the game, the head coach also made a point of something which has been an issue throughout the season so far: “One way to help your defense offensively is to stay on the field.”
The Trojan offense has had long stretches of ineptitude in 2018, putting their defense in bad spots. Helton highlighted that after the Arizona game and reinforced his emphasis on Wednesday, particularly the need to convert third downs.
At the least, USC’s offense has had encouraging moments in practice this week. Wednesday’s third-down focused 7-on-7 period was a sign of the growing chemistry between JT Daniels and his receivers, with long completions to Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns and Velus Jones Jr.
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“I think the receivers and the quarterbacks have really hooked up nicely,” Helton said of the week’s practices so far. “That’s going to be primary here.”
Notes and tidbits
- Playoff atmosphere… With control of the Pac-12 South on the line, Helton said this week’s matchup with Colorado has “playoff championship game atmosphere.”
- One-on-one competition… The one-on-one period pitting wide receivers against defensive backs has become one of USC’s most lively periods of practice, providing highlights aplenty on both sides. Michael Pittman made an outstretched one-handed grab on a fade in the endzone over Greg Johnson. Johnson had a pass breakup in a similar area going against Devon Williams. Williams caught a touchdown going higher than Isaiah Langley. Iman Marshall grabbed an interception on an overthrown ball intended for Josh Imatorbhehe before breaking up another pass in the corner of the endzone intended for the same receiver.
- Early prep for Wildcat… USC began their goal line and red zone preparation early this week specifically to get a head start on defending Colorado’s Wildcat package, Helton said. The Buffaloes use receiver Laviska Shenault in that role, from which he has scored four touchdowns this season. “We have spent extra time in that facet because it’s something that they bring to the park each and every game,” Helton said.
- Deep ball threat first… Shenault is a danger out of the Wildcat, but that’s just one of many areas he where is built to succeed. “He is a deep ball threat first,” Helton said, crediting him for being strong and physical with great ball skills as a receiver and a running backs’ mentality. “A unique talent,” he called him.
- Trusting evaluations and development… A player like Shenault appeared to come out of nowhere, but Helton said his emergence as a three-star prospect coming out of high school isn’t completely rare. “It happens everywhere,” he said, noting the importance of personal evaluation, not just recruiting stars. “You have to trust your evaluation.”