The USC Trojans (4-2, 3-1 Pac-12 South), ranked No. 22 by the Associated Press (AP) and No. 25 by USA Today, host the Colorado Buffaloes (2-4, 0-3 Pac-12 South) in the school’s annual Homecoming game this Saturday, October 18, at 3 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Pac-12 Networks cable television audience. It’s the ninth meeting between the schools (fourth as Pac-12 foes) – the Trojans have won all eight prior battles, including a 47-29 victory last November in Boulder and a 50-6 shellacking in the most recent Los Angeles meeting in 2012.
A week ago, USC survived a late threat from then-No 10 Arizona, defeating the Wildcats, 28-26, in Tucson. After Javorius “Buck” Allen’s three rushing TDs and the bulk of his career-high 205 rushing yards had staked the Trojans to a 28-13 fourth-quarter edge, Arizona’s wild comeback attempt – including a recovered onside kick – fell short when Wildcat kicker Casey Skowron pushed a 36-yard field goal attempt wide right with 12 seconds to play. Meanwhile, the Buffaloes worked through their first bye week of 2014 after dropping a tough 36-31 decision to Oregon State in Boulder on Oct. 4.
Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (4-2 at USC, 38-31 career) is in his first season at the helm after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). In Boulder, CU headman Mike MacIntyre (22-33 as a head coach, 6-12 at CU) is in second campaign trying to resuscitate the Buffs’ football program after performing similar work at San Jose State (2010-12). After a four-win season in 2013 (the Buffs’ best showing since leaving the Big XII after the 2010 season), he’s got the Colorado offense on the right path – but youth remains a major factor in his rebuilding efforts. Colorado currently has the second-most underclassmen (freshmen and sophomores) in its two-deep of any school in the nation (32, just behind Tulane).
Five games into the 2013 season, offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren made the call to replace then-starting quarterback Connor Wood with true freshman Sefo Liufau. At the time, it appeared to be a move geared toward the future and it’s paid off rather well. As a sophomore, Liufau has responded terrifically to Lindgren’s tutoring. The Buffs are a fast-paced (87 plays per game), multifaceted, pass-first offense that – through six games – is averaging 107 more yards per game (476.7) than it did a season ago (Colorado last averaged more than 400 yards per game for an entire season in 2001). Liufau, who also poses a threat with his legs (72 yards rushing vs. Cal), has improved immensely, completing 65.3 percent of his throws, with 19 TD tosses against seven interceptions.
Though Colorado lost Paul Richardson to the NFL after his junior season, Nelson Spruce has stepped ably into his shoes. The 6-foot-1 junior leads the nation with 62 catches and 10 TDs, while ranking second nationally with 732 receiving yards. A solid possession threat (37 of his catches are for 10 yards or less), he’s also a big-play threat (10 catches of 20-plus yards, with TDs of 54, 70 and 71 yards). Against Cal, he set a school record (and tied a conference mark) with 19 catches (for 179 yards). Freshman Shay Fields is second on the squad with 33 grabs (but just a 7.8 yards per average, with two scores), while senior D.D. Goodson remains a solid option from the slot (21 catches, 10.5 avg., one TD). Senior Tyler McCullouch (18 catches, 13.2 avg., two TDs) and redshirt freshman Bryce Bobo (15, 9.5, one score) are also called upon. And the Buffs have also started incorporating tight ends more – senior Kyle Slavin, sophomore Sean Irwin and redshirt freshman H-back George Frazier have combined for 12 grabs and two TDs (both by Frazier).
Colorado returned three experienced running backs in 2014, but the Buffaloes are averaging just 156.3 yards on the ground (eighth in the conference, 77th nationally). Junior thumper Christian Powell is expected to return Saturday after sitting out the Oregon State game due to a concussion suffered on Sept. 27 against Cal. He leads the team in carries (57), yards (274) and average (4.8 per carry). He also has seven receptions, as does sophomore Michael Adkins II. Adkins is much quicker than Powell and filled in well against Oregon State (79 yards on 13 carries). Undersized senior Tony Jones has been a solid utility player throughout his CU career. He’s second on the team with 193 yards rushing (5.1 average) and also has nine receptions. Redshirt freshman scooter Phillip Lindsay (4 yards on 33 carries) is also likely to see some snaps.
After suffering depth and injury issues, the Buffs began to see more steadiness along the offensive line last season, and in 2014, the same quintet has started all six games. Three returning starters – senior LG Kaiwi Crabb, senior RG Daniel Munyer and junior RT Stephane Nembot – have been joined by sophomores Jeromy Irwin (LT) and Alex Kelley (center). Experienced depth is still an issue, but the Buffaloes per-rush average has improved immensely from 2013, and CU has allowed just eight sacks.
Defensive coordinator Kent Baer – a long-time conference fixture (with stints as DC at Cal, Arizona State, Stanford and Washington, as well as Notre Dame) – has seen his Colorado defense take some decent steps in 2014. After wallowing at or near the very bottom of most of the Pac-12’s defensive rankings (and nationally, below No. 100) in recent years, the Buffaloes are pushing toward the middle of the pack. Certainly, they aren’t there yet – Colorado ranks ninth in the conference (No. 72 nationally) in rush defense (allowing nearly 170 yards per game) and 11th in scoring defense (35.7 points per game). However, Colorado is in the upper half of the conference in pass defense (fourth) and total defense (sixth). They’ve knocked almost three points and 60 yards per game off of their averages from when they faced USC in 2013.
Up front, the Buffaloes are mixing some exciting new talent with a few experienced standbys. The biggest splash has been from redshirt freshman end Derek McCartney, who counts a team-leading four sacks among his 15 stops. Sophomore Jimmie Gilbert starts at the other end (18 tackles, three for loss), while undersized true freshman Christian Shaver and sophomore De’Jon Wilson also see action. It’s mainly a three-man rotation at the two tackle spots, with senior Juda Parker (a converted end) and junior Josh Tupou the starters, with junior Justin Solis seeing a lot of snaps. The trio has 43 stops but just 1.5 sacks.
Sophomore MLB Addison Gillam continues to dazzle for the Buffaloes. Though he left the Oregon State game with a concussion, he’s expected to be full go on Saturday. He leads the team with 52 tackles and 6.5 for loss, including 2.5 sacks. On the weak side, athletic sophomore Kenneth Olugbode has learned on the job with 34 stops. On the strong side, senior Woodson Greer III has been in and out of the lineup – and is the first LB replaced when the Buffs go into nickel formations. Senior Brady Daigh (11 tackles) provides depth on the inside.
Returning cornerback starters Greg Henderson, a senior, and Kenneth Crawley, a junior, have helped stabilize things for the CU secondary in 2014. They each have 28 tackles and have combined for 16 pass break-ups. Sophomore strong safety Tedric Thompson has been the group’s leader, with 43 tackles (second on the team) and all three of CU’s interceptions. Senior free safety Jered Bell was a big loss when he suffered a torn ACL in summer camp, but sophomore Chidobe Awuzie, the team’s nickel back in 2013, has stepped in admirably with 42 tackles and eight pass break-ups. Sophomore John Walker is the mainstay when the Buffaloes go nickel (he’s started five games there against CU’s pass-happy schedule) and has 17 tackles so far.
Colorado Special Teams
Senior Will Oliver handles the placekicking duties. He’s made all 25 PATs but has made just five-of-nine field goal opportunities, and Colorado ranks No. 102 nationally in kickoff return yards allowed. On the other hand, senior punter Darragh O’Neill is vying for Ray Guy Award honors. His 46.1 yards-per-punt average ranks 10th nationally and his net of 41.4 ranks seventh. He’s also placed 16-of-31 boots inside the 20. Spruce is the punt returner (6.2 yards per on nine chances), while freshman running back Lindsay is the main kickoff returner. He has been dangerous at times, averaging 24 yards per opportunity.
USC Offensive Gameplan
Allen was the star in Tucson, notching a career high in rushing yards, surpassing 100 yards in a game for the fifth time this season, and, as usual, catching four passes. But that’s not to say that USC – as noted in this space last week – didn’t try to open up the offense against what had been a struggling Wildcat secondary. Sarkisian said the gameplan called for more downfield looks for Cody Kessler – and he connected with Nelson Agholor for a beautiful 21-yard TD pass. It appeared, though, that Kessler struggled with those deeper routes and/or checked down more quickly than the Trojan coaching staff would have liked. But when you have Allen doing his thing, perhaps Kessler was just avoiding taking too many risks – though he did throw his first INT of the season.
When you watch the USC offense, it feels like an entity that’s still seeking an identity. But after six games, isn’t it clear? Allen is the key to this machine. Not only is he leading the Pac-12 in rush yards and rush TDs, he’s also second on the team in receptions and receiving yards.
For this week, at the very least, it seems the Trojans would be willing to rely on Allen against a CU defense that’s been gashed by its opponents that actually have an interest in running the football regularly – Colorado State (266 rush yards allowed), Arizona State (223) and Oregon State (167). Thump the Buffs with Buck and use him to get your receivers some space. While CU has improved, this is still a team that’s allowed 1,030 yards it’s past two outings and has held just one opponent to fewer than 371 in a game. USC has a physical advantage Saturday. Use it.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Leonard Williams was a one-man wrecking crew out there for the Trojans in Tucson. Of course, there was his memorable hit on Terris Jones-Grigsby that forced a key fumble. And there was his stop on a would-be game-tying two-point conversion in the final minutes. But, for three quarters, he was not alone – as Arizona ran up an opponent’s record number of plays, the Trojan defense held strong until stumbling late. After the past two fourth-quarter performances, one must wonder if the personnel limitations still in place due to NCAA sanctions are wearing on a Trojan defense that’s seen 169 plays from hurry-up offenses the past two weeks.
With injuries and illness putting cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson and Kevon Seymour and safety Gerald Bowman into the questionable/limited camp this Saturday, true freshmen John Plattenburg and Jonathan Lockett are likely to see many more opportunities on the field. The young duo held up fairly well when thrown into the fourth-quarter fire at Tucson – but what about an entire game?
Though Williams has been limited with a sore shoulder in practice this week, he’s expected to play – and he will be a key against Colorado’s quick-hitting passing attack. Colorado likes to chip away in the passing game. USC’s defensive linemen have to get a paw up quickly, because the way CU’s passing game works, the opportunities for a sack are likely to be few and far between. The Trojans’ stellar third-down defense will remain crucial against a Colorado team converting 42.6 percent of its opportunities. And while USC has been excellent the past two weeks against previously outstanding rushing attacks, the Trojans can’t afford to give the Buffs’ so-so ground game any cheap yards. Liufau carries the CU offense, but his job gets a lot easier when Powell and Co. get it going.
So, one week, USC loses a game on a final-play Hail Mary. The very next week, USC wins a game when the opponent shanks a would-be-game-winning (and near-gimme) field goal attempt in the closing seconds. What a roller coaster ride it’s been for the Trojans and their fans. But, to give you an idea of what kind of college football season it’s been so far, USC is only the second Pac-12 team to experience those two outcomes this season – Cal lost at Arizona on a Hail Mary but won a couple weeks later when Wazzu blew a short field goal late.
The big question is how the Trojan defense – with its battered, limited and exceedingly youthful secondary personnel – handles Colorado’s surprisingly strong offense coming off of two draining performances? CU wants to play fast and is much more competent as a throwing team. If USC struggles on defense early, this game could remain competitive much longer than any Homecoming-visiting Trojan fan would like – and would again put the Trojan defense into a fourth-quarter fight that it would rather avoid.
Theoretically, this game shouldn’t be that kind of battle. While MacIntyre has the Buffs on the right track, the Trojan offense should dominate Colorado’s defense. The Buffs have a hard time getting off the field on third down – while USC has been excellent all season. That’s an especially bad prescription for facing Allen, who posts his best numbers carrying the football on that play. Expect USC to build a lead this week that it can finally carry all the way home.
USC 42, Colorado 20
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).