Troy Williams and the receiving corps vs USC's secondary:
Through three games, it appears as if the passing game is much improved. Apart from some questionable decisions by Troy Williams that have led to turnovers, the passing game looks much more diverse and explosive. Tim Patrick has emerged as a go-to receiver and the return of Cory Butler-Byrd makes the group that much more dangerous. Hopefully Tyrone Smith will be healthy for this game, and Singleton, Fulks, and the tight ends will need to make more plays to open things up for Patrick and CBB. Lack of targets is not a problem for the Utes this year, but we need to see more consistency from the third and fourth guys. That being said, how do they stack up against the USC secondary?
So far the Trojans are only giving up 178 yards passing per game, good for 39th in the nation. Additionally, USC returns some very good DBs from 2015. On the outside are Adoree Jackson (5'11", 185 lbs) and Iman Marshall (6'2", 200 lbs). Marshall was statistically USC's best DB last year, he recorded 62 tackles, 3 INTs, and 9 PBUs as a freshman. On the other side, Jackson is probably the most athletically gifted player on the roster, which is saying something given that USC is loaded with 4 and 5 star talent at nearly every position. The outside receivers will have their work cut out for them in getting open and also in blocking, however, and height matchups are favorable as Patrick, Smith and Singleton all stand at 6'3" or taller.
Where I think Utah may have an advantage is at the slot position. Hopefully we will see these guys utilized a bit more than just on screen passes, as CBB and Fulks both have the speed to get open deep. Look for Utah to test USC's safeties, who struggled quite a bit in coverage last year, as they combined to defend only 4 passes between the two of them. The talent levels between these two groups appear to be very similar, and I think this will be one of the most even matchups of the game.
The Utah O-line and RBs vs the USC front 7:
Utah's offensive line is big, experienced, and talented across the board. Although they started slow against SUU, they have started to gel together, and by the 2nd quarter of the SJSU game, they looked absolutely dominant, opening holes for Zack Moss, Armand Shyne, and Troy McCormick to run for more than 250 yards combined. The line has looked pretty good in pass protection so far, although they did have some missed assignments which led to some sacks against the Spartans. All five normal starters as well as Jackson Barton have shown that they can play well, and Sam Tevi, who sat against SJSU, should be back for this game. In the backfield is a young but talented group of backs who have shown different ways to contribute to the offense. Moss is probably the most effective every down back, but Shyne and McCormick have shown the ability to break off big runs or, in McCormick's case, catch a pass for a big gain as well. Shyne may push Moss for first team reps, as both looked very good against SJSU, averaging over 7 yards per carry.
On the other side of the ball is a defensive front that is struggling so far this year. All three starters on the line from 2015 graduated, and Kenny Bigelow, who was expected to start this year at nose tackle, was lost for the year with an injury during spring ball. One familiar face and probably USC's best D lineman right now is former Utah DT Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, who transferred to USC in search of more playing time. In spite of his talent, the defensive line has been pretty porous so far, allowing an average of 195 yards rushing per game. They are also struggling to get pressure on the QB, as they've only tallied 5 sacks in the first three games.
The linebackers for USC are a deep group, even with the loss of Osa Masina due to legal problems. While the line may struggle, the talent of the linebackers helps. Cameron Smith, who picked off Travis Wilson three times last year, leads the Trojans in tackles so far. Utah native Porter Gustin is second in stops, and also leads the Trojans in sacks, with two. Michael Hutchings is another linebacker to watch out for, he is smaller than the other two mentioned, but is fast and pretty good in coverage. Despite the star talent across the line, if Utah plays smart and physical, they should be able to move the ball against this front 7.
USC struggled mightily against Alabama and Stanford, both are teams with big, physical offensive linemen who love to punch you in the mouth and run the ball down your throat. Utah is the same way, and I have to give a slight advantage to Utah in this matchup.
Max Browne/Sam Darnold and the USC receivers vs. the Utah secondary:
Junior Max Browne and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold have both seen playing time this year, and while both have been serviceable, neither has been spectacular so far. I expect both will play against Utah. Browne is averaging about 160 yards per game, and only 5.45 yards per pass attempt, with 2 TDs and 2 INTs. Darnold has played in all three games, but has thrown for only 136 yards total, averaging 6.18 yards per attempt, with 2 TDs and 1 INT. For comparison, Troy Williams is averaging about 241 yards per game, with 8.41 yards per attempt and 4 TDs to 4 INTs.
As for the receiving corps, USC returns its leading receivers from last year, Juju Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, and Steven Mitchell. This receiving corps is extremely physically gifted, but hasn't played up to their potential so far this year. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who many consider to be the best WR in the country, is only averaging 33 yards receiving per game, and only Rogers has eclipsed 100 total receiving yards on the year. There have been some well-documented team chemistry issues at USC, including Smith-Schuster walking out of practice and infighting on the team after a blowout loss to Alabama.
Fortunately for Utah, their secondary is shaping up to be one of the better units in the PAC 12. Led by Marcus Williams, Utah's secondary will need to play a very good game to hold these talented receivers in check. I expect Domo Hatfield to cover Smith-Schuster most of the time if he's healthy, and Justin Thomas and Reggie Porter will be matched up against Mitchell and Rogers, respectively. Expect to see plenty of Brian Allen as well, possibly matched up against JuJu as well since he is Utah's biggest CB. USC will probably use plenty of crossing routes to try to take advantage of the inexperienced linebackers, so hopefully those guys will be up to the task as well.
This should be another great matchup, and I don't know if I can say whether one side or the other has an advantage. I'm leaning slightly towards Utah since they have been pretty dominant in their first three games, but if these receivers play up to their potential, watch out.
USC's O-line and running backs vs. Utah's front 7:
USC returns all five starters from last year's line and are one of the most talented offensive lines in the nation. They also bring two very talented running backs to the game in Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II. Jones came on strong at the end of the year and finished with just over 1000 yards rushing on the year. However, as has been the case with the entire team, these guys have not played up to their potential so far. The USC rushing attack is only gaining 119 yards per game and a miserable 3.6 yards per carry. The bright spot here is pass protection, the line has been doing a good job protecting the QB against some very good defenses, as they've only given up 6 sacks through three games.
Utah's front 7 is deep and talented this year, with the D line especially looking nasty. Dimick, Lotulelei, Mokofisi, Tasini, Havili-Katoa, and Taumoepenu are all names we'll hear a lot this fall, and we could see as many as three of those names on NFL rosters in 2017. The pass rush is fantastic, totaling 15 sacks, good for 2nd in the nation behind only Florida. The run defense has been very solid so far, not allowing a 100 yard rusher and only allowing 105 yards per game on the ground. At linebacker, Cody Barton and Sunia Tauteoli have been pretty good so far, but there's still room for improvement, as they're still caught out of assignment and miss some tackles from time to time. David Luafatasaga is also a pretty solid option, but may not see a lot of playing time this game since USC often has 3 WRs on the field. The linebackers will need to be solid in coverage to make sure Utah doesn't get picked apart by crossing routes, but the line should make the opposing running backs' lives very difficult. In this matchup, I feel fairly comfortable saying that Utah should have the advantage.
Utah special teams vs. USC special teams:
Both Andy Phillips and Matt Boermeester are solid kickers, and both have only missed one field goal attempt on the year. Utah has a decided advantage at punter, as USC's punter is only averaging 39.4 yards per attempt, whereas Mitch Wishnowsky is averaging 52.6 yards per punt. Where USC has a clear advantage is in the return game, as Adoree Jackson is always a threat to take a kick to the house, and already has one punt return for a touchdown on the year. Boobie Hobbs has the potential to be a good returner, but so far he has danced around too much on his returns instead of picking a lane and running forward. Overall, I'd say these two units are on equal footing.
This game will be a close one, but I feel that Utah has a defensive advantage and will bring an improved and more balanced offensive effort to the table compared to last year. Add that to home field advantage, and so long as they play clean and disciplined football, I think they win this one by a margin of about 7 points.
Prediction: 24-17 Utah
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