USC's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense
I have some unfortunate news for UCLA fans: if your opinion about USC was formed in September, it is probably woefully inaccurate now. The Trojans, who started the year looking like a mediocre team with a bad offense, have turned into one of the elite teams in the country over the last six weeks, and they've done it thanks to a surging defense and an offense that has improved by orders of magnitude since the beginning of the season.
A big part of that improvement has been due to a change at quarterback, with redshirt freshman Sam Darnold (6'4, 225) replacing redshirt junior Max Browne (6'5, 220). A lot of observers thought that Darnold should have begun the year as the starting quarterback, but either the coaching staff thought differently, or they had different motivations centered around keeping a credible second quarterback in the program. Browne was eligible to graduate transfer before the season, and would have had two years to play elsewhere if he had transferred in August. In any case, Browne did not perform well through the first three games, with the Trojans scoring a combined 16 points in their two games against Power 5 opponents in the first three games (losses to Alabama and Stanford). He has thrown just two touchdown passes this year, and was very ineffective throwing downfield or connecting in general with USC's many talented skill players. With Darnold, USC has suddenly become an elite, explosive offense. Darnold has completed 68% of his passes this year with 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He's averaging nearly 9 yards per attempt, as the passing offense has gotten much more effective with him at the helm. He's legitimately in the conversation for best quarterback in the Pac-12, and that would have been an absurd thought at the beginning of the year, when he wasn't even starting.
The Trojan offense in general is now a top 15 unit in terms of yards per play, with an average of 6.4 yards per play, and it's been even better over the last three games, with an average of 7.1 yards per play. The Trojans have been pretty balanced, as well, with 5.3 yards per rush attempt (a top 15 number) and 7.8 yards per pass attempt (up to 8.4 over the last three games). The Trojans have turned it over a fair amount (1.6 turnovers per game), with Darnold coughing up a few fumbles.
While USC has a bevy of skill talent, the real key to the offensive resurgence, aside from the play of Darnold, has been the overall gelling of the offensive line. It's no exaggeration to suggest that the Trojans have the best offensive line in the Pac-12 at this point. They give up sacks at the second-lowest rate in Power 5 (an absurdly low 2.84% of drop backs) and, like we just mentioned, the Trojans run the ball at an incredible clip. After several years of building experience and developing talent on the offensive line, the Trojans are finally reaping what they sowed, with three juniors and two seniors starting on the line. The one link that was supposed to be relatively weak was at center, where redshirt junior Nico Falah (6'4, 280) has to step in due to injury, but Falah has been very good most of the season. The guards, true juniors Viane Talamaivao (6'2, 315) and Damien Mama (6'4, 325) have started to realize their immense potential, and have developed into dominant run blockers. The tackles, like we mentioned, have been excellent protecting the passer, and redshirt senior Zach Banner (6'9, 360) has been a force run blocking as well at times. Redshirt senior Chad Wheeler (6'6, 310) and sophomore Chuma Edoga (6'4, 290) have split time at the other tackle spot this year, but Wheeler has solidified that position as the season has gone on.
As basically always, USC is loaded with talent at running back, so much so that the Trojans have arguably gotten better running the ball over the last four games, despite senior starter Justin Davis (6'1, 200) being out with a high ankle sprain. Davis should be back in some capacity for this game, but we'd imagine the Trojans will once again lean heavily on sophomore Ronald Jones (6'1, 195), who is once again one of the most explosive players in the Pac-12. He's averaging 6.3 yards per carry this year on 123 carries, and has improved as a pass catcher as well. Davis could get second-team reps, or they could turn to sophomore Aca'cedric Ware (6'0, 195), who's been fairly solid as well, averaging 5.2 yards per carry on 70 attempts. Darnold is a run threat in his own right, with an average of 4.2 yards per carry on 45 attempts. For the most part, Davis, Jones, and Ware will get the bulk of the carries, but don't be surprised to see sophomore speedster Dominic Davis (5'10, 180) or even junior do-everything guy Adoree Jackson (5'11, 185) take some carries as well.
After a weird start to the season where he was basically not a featured part of the offense, junior receiver Juju Smith-Schuster (6'2, 220) is back to looking like one of the premier receivers in the Pac-12. He's averaging 13.4 yards per catch on 51 catches and has 8 touchdowns. He hasn't quite had the production he had last year, but it looks like it's more due to growing balance in the offense than anything. Senior receiver Darreus Rogers (6'1, 215) and sophomore receiver Deontay Burnett (6'0, 170) have developed into such solid safety valves for Darnold that he's been able to spread the ball around relatively easily (Rogers has 44 catches and Burnett, more of a slotty-type, has 35. Steven Mitchell, Jr. suffered an ACL tear earlier this year, but it hasn't really slowed the receiving corps. The Trojans have also been aided by a resurgent tight end position, with redshirt freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe (6'4, 240), sophomore Tyler Petite (6'5, 235), and redshirt senior Taylor McNamara (6'5, 245) combining for 31 catches and 7 touchdowns already this season.
UCLA's defense has been the only thing keeping UCLA afloat this year. The Bruins have been pretty close to elite on defense for much of the year, with a couple of early season issues and then a blip against Utah being the only marks against the defense. For the most part, this is a defense that is pretty good stopping the run, elite defending against the pass, and altogether pretty decent rushing the passer.
So much of it starts up front for UCLA, with defensive end Takkarist McKinley going from basically an unknown on the national stage to an arguable first round pick. He has double-digit sacks this year, and has been even more disruptive than that number would indicate. He's played his best football over the last few games, and has appeared to get a little healthier as the season has gone on, after starting the year nursing a groin injury. McKinley has been excellent, but UCLA's interior on the defensive line has been good as well, with Eddie Vanderdoes putting together a nice bounce-back year. On the other end, UCLA has used a combination of players depending on the play, but we've really liked what we've seen out of Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who has seemed to have a bit of a coming-out year.
The play up front has helped the linebacker corps, whose improved play coincided with UCLA's overall defensive improvement. When Kenny Young has played poorly, the entire defense has struggled, but when he's been pretty good (which has now been much of the year), the defense has been, again, pretty close to elite. Jayon Brown, next to him, has been consistently good all season, and now it appears that sophomore Josh Woods is starting to get more comfortable as well, and made an impact last week against Oregon State.
The secondary has been the most consistent strength of the defense this season. Cornerback play has been the quietest strength of the team, with senior corner Fabian Moreau turning in the best season of his career. He had some mild issues last week against Oregon State, but for the most part, he's been as close to a shutdown corner that we've seen at UCLA in at least a decade. Nathan Meadors, on the opposite side, has struggled with injury a bit this year, but he's been very solid as well. The safety position has been good in coverage, for the most part, but has struggled at times against the run, with neither Randall Goforth nor Jaleel Wadood possessing great size. When Adarius Pickett has come in, which is most of the time in nickel, that has allowed Goforth to drop down to nickel, which is maybe more of a natural fit. Pickett has performed perhaps the best of any of the safeties this year, and he gives UCLA very good hope for the future at that position.
This is the game right here. UCLA's defense needs to put together a performance akin to what it did against Colorado two weeks ago, when the Bruins did everything possible on defense to win that game. USC is probably a cut above that Colorado offense, though, and USC's defense is playing so well that you have to figure UCLA needs to not just win this side of the matchup, but dominate it.
Is that possible? Sure -- but not easy. The Bruins will have to do what no team has successfully done this year, and that is harry San Darnold. Darnold has been afforded comfortable pockets to work from most of the year, and the few times he's been pressured, it usually comes against such a blitz that all he has to do is step up and scramble for a first down. UCLA needs to find a way to win match ups up front without having to blitz that often.
Luckily for UCLA, the Bruins have one of the premier pass rushers in the country in McKinley. His speed rush could absolutely cause Banner issues on the edge, and Wheeler for that matter. Again, though, this is going to require a dominant performance from McKinley -- one where he has multiple sacks, and is just in Darnold's face all day.
UCLA's secondary will get tested quite a bit if McKinley and the UCLA pass rush can't get home regularly. Moreau will likely draw the assignment of Smith-Schuster, and that's almost certainly the toughest assignment Moreau will have drawn this year. We feel better about it than we did last year, but we'd feel a lot more comfortable if we knew UCLA would be able to harass Darnold and keep him uncomfortable.
USC's offense is balanced and talented enough that there are just so many pressure points for UCLA to deal with. Even if they defend the pass perfectly, and harass Darnold into an off night, there's still the running game to contend with. Vanderdoes, who didn't get to play in last year's USC game due to an early season knee injury, will need to have an A game against the Trojan front.