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USC football vs. Utah Preview: How the Trojans and Utes stack up

Trent Goodrich
USC football opponent Kyle Whittingham. Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
USC football opponent Kyle Whittingham. Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
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USC football opponent Kyle Whittingham. Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
USC football opponent Kyle Whittingham. Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

USC football had to get on track against a hard-to-pin-down Utah squad

After two dissatisfying wins and a week of uncertainty, the tilt between USC football and the Utes is set for Saturday night. Last year the Utes came into this game as heavy favorites but had another primetime meltdown as Matt Fink, Michael Pittman Jr., and the “Yolo Raid” downed Kyle Wittingham’s squad 30-23.

This season, USC returns to Rice-Eccles Stadium where the Utes have been victorious in the last three meetings between the two universities.

On Tuesday, Josh Newman of the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Utah AD Mark Harlan confirmed that 70-80% of Utah’s roster would be available for the game this Saturday.

Obviously exactly which 70-80% of players are available matters, and it appears that USC is guaranteed to face another team that is at a significant talent deficit. But can they shake their early-season struggles and take advantage?

When USC football is on offense…

Punch it in

One of the prevalent conversations in modern baseball is the difference between “baseball card” stats and advanced analytics. Over time, statisticians realized that going beyond batting average, hits, runs, walks, and home runs is essential to determining the true impact of a given player.

So how does this relate to USC? Well, on the surface, most of the “baseball card” stats indicate that USC is a good offense. Kedon Slovis has completed 71 percent of his passes, the running backs average 5.35 yards per carry, and Amon-Ra St. Brown and Drake London average over 15 yards per catch.

Even some advanced metrics, like Bill Connelly’s SP+ that rates USC’s offense as the 12th best offense in the country, believe that the Trojans are efficient. However, this illusion fades when one examines the offense’s ability to score touchdowns.

Here’s a baseball card stat. USC is ranked 46th in the country in scoring at 31 points per game. Even worse, the Trojans have only converted 57.14% of their red zone trips into touchdowns, leaving them tied for 87th in the country by that standard.

In the end, it comes down to USC’s offensive line lacking physicality for the fourth consecutive season under Clay Helton, and Graham Harrell’s scheme not accounting for the offense’s deficiencies in ways that allow them to score against inferior competition.

So…who are you?

On defense, Utah lost nine starters over the offseason, which leaves little projectability for this group outside of the expectation that the Utes will maintain their physical culture.

On the defensive line, Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu, and John Penisini are gone, leaving defensive end Mika Tafua as the only returning starter. On the other end will be Maxs Tupai while Hauati Pututau and Viane Moala will join the group at defensive tackle.

The drop-off in talent is evident, yet all of the starters this season at least rotated into games in 2019, so they will be just as physical as the players that came before them.

In the middle of Utah’s 4-2-5 will be all-conference inside linebacker Devin Lloyd, while Nephi Sewell plays the rover linebacker position.

In the secondary, Utah must replace safety Jaylon Johnson who was drafted in the 2nd round by the Bears, Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess, both third-round selections, Javelin Guidry at nickelback, and corner Tareke Lewis.

Bronson Boyd and JaTravis Broughton will start at corner, with Malone Mataele and Clark Phillips II rotating at nickel, and RJ Hubert and Vonte Davis at safety.

This new look secondary with four combined starts can expect a rude introduction to the Pac-12 from USC’s receiving corps.

How they matchup

At the skill positions, USC should dominate the Utes. There is simply too much talent outside for USC to be slowed by a secondary and linebacking corps that returns one starter. Unfortunately for USC, football games are won in the trenches, and even with Utah returning just one starter there, the Trojans remain at a disadvantage because Utah is flat-out more physical.

Expect USC to struggle to move the ball on the ground against the Utes, and for the passing attack to be slowed by a muddied pocket (due to pressure from Utah’s tackles) and the cold Salt Lake City weather. The Utes will likely deploy the drop 7/8 zone that every team now uses against USC because they no longer have the players to justify man to man coverage. Even with three NFL caliber players in their secondary, the Utes were dominated in one v. one matchups downfield. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley will learn from his mistake last season and force the Trojans to string together long drives to score against a four-man rush.

Given the opposing strategy, USC may be able to move the ball with the quick passing game, much like they have in the first two contests, but don’t expect the red zone woes to end this week unless Harrell decides to lean on the big bodies of London, Eric Krommenhoek, and Bru McCoy with slants and flat routes at the goal line.

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