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

USC football opponent Kyle Whittingham. Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
USC football opponent Kyle Whittingham. Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports /
2 of 3
USC football defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu. (Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports)
USC football defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu. (Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports) /

When USC football is on defense…

Boom or Bust

Overall, the Trojans’ defense has produced big plays and been solid through the first two games against respectable offenses. The issue is that while USC generates game-changing plays on defense, they also allow them far too often for the offense.

The defensive line has been better than expected after Jay Tufele’s opt-out. Caleb Tremblay and Nick Figueroa are solid as 3-3-5 defensive ends, and Marlon Tuipulotu has been an absolute wrecking ball with 16 tackles and one sack as a nose tackle. His contribution to the defense is what won USC’s first two games.

Drake Jackson’s absence was stark in the first half of Saturday’s matchup with Arizona, and the sophomore made an immediate impact when he returned in the 2nd half with five tackles and two sacks.

Olaijah Griffin has locked down opposing receivers as the field side corner, and Chris Steele has been solid opposite him despite a few penalties due to over-physicality. Greg Johnson tackles well from the nickel but sometimes struggles to stay with slot receivers on the variety of routes they run.

Isaiah Pola-Mao and Talanoa Hufanga are asked to do an incredible amount of work for this defense to fix others’ mistakes, and the tandem has largely done well with that. There have been a couple of instances where one of the two has faltered, and unfortunately, that is when the Trojans are crushed by a big play. Hopefully, both continue to grow and understand the vital nature of their roles as the backline of defense for Todd Orlando’s scheme.

Then, of course, there are the linebackers. After Palaie Gaoteote went out of the game last week, Raymond Scott came in and provided energy and production off the bench for USC, which was enormous. The former linebacker, turned safety, turned linebacker had a sack and seemed to be around the ball often for the Trojans in the second half.

It’s not as bad as it seems

Yes, the Utes lost senior quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss to graduation following the 2019 season, but the Utah offense remains largely intact going into 2020.

The most important group, the offensive line, returns four starters in LT Nick Ford, LG Brandon Daniels, C Orlando Umana and RT Simi Moala. Breaking in a new right guard (Johnny Maea) won’t break this unit, which means the Trojans have their hands full when it comes to winning in the trenches.

The pass-catchers will be no less formidable this season, with Brant Kuithe (34 rec. 602 yds) leading the way at tight end. Leading wide receiver Bryan Thompson (18 rec. 461 yards) is also back, and of course, do it all junior slot man Britain Covey hopes to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2019.

At running back, Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore carried the rock 108 combined times in 2019, averaging 4.23 yards per carry between the two of them. Moss certainly had a greater impact at 6.0 yards per carry, but look for one of the two remaining backs to elevate their game and provide a similar level of production.

Unfortunately for the Utes, their biggest question mark is at quarterback, as South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley, Texas transfer Cam Rising, and Drew Lisk battle to lead this offense.

Bentley appeared to be the front-runner through Utah’s camp due to his two and a half years of starting experience in the SEC, yet his proclivity for turnovers (32 interceptions in 34 career games) is the opposite of what this physical offense is looking for.

Rising has the most eligibility left as a sophomore, so it could be beneficial for the Utes to get him game experience with an eye towards 2021 if the battle is near-even.

How they matchup

While it is difficult to even know who will be on the field for Utah this week, there are some keys to success that USC should lean on heading into this week’s game.

First, the defensive line, specifically Tuipulotu and Jackson, need to maintain their dominating ways for USC to have a chance on defense. They are the engine of this entire scheme and are facing the most experienced and physical offensive line they have seen this season. If they can play in the backfield and pressure whoever the Utes’ quarterback is, that will create opportunities for USC’s talented secondary.

Second, the Trojans should retain their second-half approach to third-down defense against Arizona for the rest of the year. It does no good to allow any quarterback, regardless of their foot speed, to extend drives on third and long with their legs. Especially when the weather will impact the offense’s ability to throw downfield. Spy, spy, spy.

Finally, can Utah get enough from their quarterback to keep USC honest and away from the line of scrimmage? The Utes must be able to lean on the rush against this Trojan defense, which means their quarterback needs to make 5-7 big throws to keep the Trojan safeties away from the box.

USC may look shaky at times against the big play, but they are more talented than the Utes and generally display greater pride than the USC offense when it comes to physicality. Orlando won’t allow them to be pushed around without a fight, so it will be crucial for the Utes to be able to generate a rushing attack, especially when their quarterback may be turnover prone.