Utah (2-2, 0-1) returns to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday to take on USC (3-1, 1-1) in a game that will have heavy implications on the Pac-12 south division. Both Utah and USC are coming off of bye weeks, which gave each team extra time to prepare for the Thursday contest. Kickoff is set for 7:00 pm MDT, and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN.
Utah Run Offense vs USC Run Defense
To say that Utah's run offense has struggled thus far this season would be a wild understatement. Many of Utah's struggles to run the football have begun up front, where the offensive line has been depleted by injuries. Against the Trojans, Utah will start its fourth different offensive line group in five games. Senior tackle Sam Brenner has played well, despite playing outside of his natural position. True freshman Jeremiah Poutasi has shown promise at right tackle, and will hopefully show improvement after his first start. The group as a whole was getting better at run blocking behind junior guard Vyncent Jones, but Jones will miss this game due to injury. The big question for the game is how the run blocking will fare behind Jones' replacement, redshirt freshman Siaosi Aiono, who is making his first career start. John White needs to get back to the patient runner he was a year ago. White looks like he's been trying to make too much happen instead of taking what is given. White rarely lost yards in the past, but lost 8 against ASU because he didn't trust the blocking and tried to do too much on his own. Kelvin York finally looked like a quality back against ASU and needs to build on that. York gave the best performance by a Utah back this season.
The USC run defense has been fairly stout, giving up 117 yards per game, but only gave up 77 yards to a Cal rushing attach that features Isi Sofele and Brendan Bigelow. The defensive line is young, but athletic and has especially excelled at rushing the passer. Linebackers Dion Bailey and Lamar Dawson form the core of one of the better units Utah will face all year. Expect the USC linebackers and safeties to sell out to stop the Utah run game, forcing Jon Hays to prove that he can make plays.
USC Run Offense vs Utah Run Defense
Utah needs to be able to stop USC run game with just the front seven, or they will get beat deep in the pass game. The Ute linebackers are getting better, and were a noticeably faster group against ASU with LT Filiaga and Jacoby Hale on the field. Hale had a great game against ASU (8 tackles, 6 solo), though he was one of just a few defenders that had a good game. Look for Victor Spikes to continue to see plenty of reps as well as true freshman Reshawn Hooker, who is expected to play this week. The defense needs to show that they have short memories against the Trojans, forgetting the performance against ASU as well as what the offense is doing, play their assignments and let the game come to them. If they try to force things, they will allow big plays.
For USC, Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd providing great 1-2 punch at RB, combining for 582 yards and 4 touchdowns (Redd has all 4 USC rushing TDs). USC tends to run a traditional, pro style set, which Utah should match up well against, provided Star Lotulelei can be a disruptive force on the interior of the line.
Utah Pass Offense vs USC Pass Defense
Pass protection - especially making adjustments to stunts and blitzes - has been a problem for the Utes all season, which is to be expected from a group that isn't used to working together as a unit. As a result, Utah has been one of the worst teams in the nation at protecting the quarterback, giving up over two sacks a game. In order to be successful against the Trojans, Utah needs to move the pocket and get quarterback Jon Hays outside. This will get Hays away from quick interior pressure and simplify the passing game for both hays and the wide receivers. Additionally, the wider receivers need to step up and make plays. The first four games have featured too many poor routes and dropped passes from a group that on paper should be one of the better groups in the conference.
The USC defense is inconsistent, but can be very good. The Trojans' nine sacks against Cal is not a good sign for a Utah offensive line that has allowed 2.75 sacks a game, which ranks 101st nationally. USC gets 4 sacks a game, tied for 6th nationally with Arizona State, who sacked Utah quarterbacks 4 times and had pressure on seemingly every pass. Morgan Breslin (5.5 sacks), Leona Williams (4 sacks) and George Uko (3 sacks) are all excellent pass rushers on the defensive line. The Trojan defensive line pressure has provided the USC secondary with plenty of opportunities for interceptions, which they have cashed in on, with eight picks on the season. Dion Bailey leads team with 3 picks and 4 passes defended.
USC Pass Offense vs Utah Pass Defense
This game marks the first time Utah will have both starting safeties this season, which should help the pass game. The best way to slow down the USC pass game is to put pressure on Barkley. Trevor Reilly has been the only consistent pass rusher on the team. Nate Fakahafua needs to develop pass rush moves and stop relying solely on his athleticism. Thus far this season, quarterback pressure has been coming by scheme, not winning one-on-one battles, and times where the Utes have brough 3-4 man pressure has been easy for opponents to block, because the pass rushers stay square. Cornerback Reggie Topps is third on team with two sacks, behind Reilly and Joe Kruger who have 2.5 each. The biggest key is that the defensive backs have to finish plays. They have lots of pass breakups on the season, but just two interceptions, and one is by defensive end Joe Kruger. They cannot win if they continue to drop interceptions.
There's no question that USC has loads of talent, especially on offense. However, they do have weaknesses as well. Quarterback Matt Barkley struggles under pressure, and can be forced to make mistakes. The USC offensive line has played well every game with the exception of Stanford, which center Kahled Holmes missed. The pass game is clearly a two man show, with Marquise Lee and Robert Woods catching 65 of USC's 91 catches and 10 of the 12 receiving touchdowns. The USC offense has been somewhat simple, yet very hard to stop because of the talent of the players. Utah is going to have their hands full matching up.
Utah's special teams unit needs work. Charles Henderson is a threat as a punt returner (12.7 AVG, 57 long), but he has been one of the few bright spots on special teams. Coleman Petersen has been inconsistent, hitting 50% of his field goal attempts and is just 1 for his last 3. Sean Sellwood is a great punter when given protection, but has had one kick blocked and several impacted by pressure. Tom Hackett does not have Sellwood's leg, but has been a good situational punter with the knack for pinning the ball inside the 20, and gets the ball off quicker. Utah's kick coverage has been good, but the punt coverage has been surprisingly below average.
USC's kickers are solid. Kyle Negrete is averaging 44.9 yards per punt with no touchbacks and seven downed inside the 20. Andre Heidari has not had a lot of field goal chances, but has made all three of his attempts, two of which came from 40+ yards. Marquise Lee and Robert Woods are both dangerous return men, with Lee already scoring on a kick return. Nickell Robey is also a good punt returner, averaging 10.4 yards with a long of 34. USC coverage units have been solid, but have allowed some big returns (39 yard punt and 64 yard kick).
For Utah to have a chance, they need to start strong and actually win a first quarter, something they have yet to do this season. (The Utes have been outscored 34-7, with the only touchdown coming against BYU after a Charles Henderson punt return gave Utah the ball at the BYU 17). If things continue the way they've looked all season, USC will prove too tough for Utah to handle, and they pull away late in the game. 28-17 USC.