The USC Trojans (0-1) open their 2016 home schedule against the Mountain West Conference’s Utah State Aggies (1-0) on Saturday, Sept. 10, at 11 a.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Pac-12 Network cable television audience. It’s the sixth meeting between the schools, but only the second since 1989 (a 66-10 Trojan victory). In 2013, USC squeaked out a 17-14 decision at the Coliseum its fifth win without a loss against the Aggies.
Let’s rip off this Band-Aid: last weekend, the Trojans were beaten up by No. 1 Alabama, 52-6, in Arlington, Texas. A 47-yard Matt Boermeester field goal on USC’s first drive held up until midway through the second quarter as the Trojan defense started strong. After a long TD toss – from freshman Jalen Hurts to ArDarius Stewart – and a field goal pushed Alabama in front 10-3, Marlon Humphrey’s pick-six on a tipped Max Browne pass with 2:37 left in the first half was USC’s death knell. The Trojans seemed mere bystanders in the second half. Meanwhile, the Aggies rolled up 428 yards rushing in a 45-6 win over FCS foe Weber State on Thursday, Sept. 1. Senior running back Devante Mays led the way with 208 yards and three scores.
USC Coach Clay Helton (6-5 at USC in parts of three seasons) is looking for his first win since signing a five-year contract on Nov. 30. It’s USC’s first home game since Helton became the full-time head coach. Utah State’s Matt Wells (26-16) is in his fourth season in Logan and has taken the Aggies to three of their five consecutive bowl appearances. The Aggies were hit hard by losses on defense (only three returning starters) and on the coaching staff (six coaches moved on, six replacements moved in). But Wells has dealt with plenty of coaching turnover – Utah State is the only FBS program to have new offensive and defensive coordinators in each of the past three years under the same head coach – and has an experienced and potentially explosive offense at his disposal.Utah State Offense
Co-offensive coordinators Jovon Bouknight (wide receivers) and Luke Wells (quarterbacks, brother of head coach) were both part of the Utah State staff a year ago under then-OC Josh Heupel (now at Missouri). They’re familiar then with the Aggies’ solid core of nine returning starters. But it’s the head coach who calls the plays. USU is a run-first team. However, junior quarterback Kent Myers was solid while starting 14 games the past two seasons in oft-injured Chuckie Keeton’s stead. A career 63-percent passer, he threw for 16 TDs and just three interceptions in 2015. More importantly, he’s just as effective with his legs: he set a school single-game QB rushing record last October vs. Colorado State (191 yards). Last week, he completed 11-of-17 passes for 100 yards, while rushing for 53 yards on seven carries.
Mays is the running back group’s leader. A physical runner, he led the Aggies in rushing a season ago as a JC transfer and picked up where he left off, averaging better than 11 yards per carry against Weber State to become Utah State’s first back to crack the 200-yard mark in nearly four years. His first TD came off of a direct snap. Junior LaJuan Hunt, Utah State’s leading rusher in 2014, is expected to be the main backup, but junior Tonny Lindsey (11 carries, 69 yards, TD) and sophomore Justen Hervey (3 carries, 84 yards, including an 80-yard TD) also impressed last week.
The Aggie offense lost the most at receiver – its top two targets in 2015, Hunter Sharp and Devonte Robinson, both wrapped up their college careers. Only senior Andrew Rodriguez – an honors candidate as a punt returner – is a returning starter (27 catches, 281 yards in 2015). He caught just one pass a week ago but averaged 14 yards on two punt returns. Sophomore Zach Van Leeuwen (two catches, 28 yards) started across the way, while true freshman Rayshad Lewis shared the team lead with three grabs (26 yards). Junior Braelon Roberts and senior Kennedy Williams are others likely to see time. Senior tight end Wyatt Houston is a reliable target with 20 career starts under his belt. He also had three catches last week.
Three Mountain West honors candidates return on the offensive line, led by senior center Austin Stephens. After spending the past two years at tackle, senior Jake Simonich is starting at right guard, which opened the RT spot for JC transfer Preston Brooksby. Returning left tackle Austin Albrecht is slated alongside another transfer, senior Jude Hockel, who got his first USU start last week at left guard. Experienced depth is limited.Utah State Defense
Co-defensive coordinators Frank Maile (defensive line, a USU grad who returns to the fold after two years at Vanderbilt) and Kendrick Shaver (safeties) face a rebuilding effort in 2016. None of the Aggies’ three returning starters are linebackers. More importantly, among the linebackers lost were fellow NFL third-round draft choices Kyler Fackrell and Nick Vigil – the heart-and-soul of the USU defense. However, Wells and Co. have a history of building solid defenses.
Up front, the return of senior nose guard Travis Seefeldt bolsters the Aggies’ 3-4 look. Seefeldt missed all of 2015 due to injuries suffered in an off-season car accident, but was a rotation regular in the three seasons prior. He teams with senior defensive end Ricky Ali’ifua, a conference honors candidate coming off of a 2015 where he split time inside and out, notching three sacks. Junior Ian Togiai (6 tackles in the opener) tops the depth chart at the other end. Seniors Edmund Faimalo and Siua Taufa will rotate in at end.
Senior outsider Brock Carmen is the most experienced of the four new linebackers. He started 2016 on the right foot with a sack among his five tackles. At the other outside spot, sophomore Derek Larsen might have a hard time holding off true freshman Justus Te’i as the season moves on. Inside, recent recipient of a scholarship and senior transfer Leki Uasike celebrated by leading the Aggies with nine tackles last week. Junior insider Alex Huerta also made his first career start, and senior Anthony Williams will also play a major role in this group.
In the secondary, junior cornerback Jalen Davis is a three-year starter (five career interceptions). Senior corner Daniel Gray has started nine games in the past two seasons after transferring from Tennessee and had six stops last week. Senior free safety Devin Centers is the leader of this group – a dependable, do-it-all type. BYU transfer Dallin Leavitt, who made his first USU start (and got his first USU pick) a week ago, could be a difference maker at strong safety. Junior corner Wesley Bailey and sophomore safeties Gaje Ferguson and Jontrell Rocquemore add depth.Utah State Special Teams
Sophomore punter Aaron Dalton improved throughout 2015 and more is expected of him this season – though he averaged just 19.5 yards on two boots last week. Seniors Jake Thompson and Brock Warren split the placekicking duties last week – Thompson on kickoffs (five touchbacks in eight attempts) and Warren on PATs/field goals (6-6, 1-1 from 31). The duo made 11-of-17 field goals combined in 2015. As noted Rodriguez is a concern on punt returns, while Williams, Hunt, and Davis may see time returning kickoffs.USC Offensive Gameplan
Six points, 194 total yards. Yards per carry: 2.1. Yards per play: 2.9. One huge pick-six. Analysts and fans everywhere are looking for answers to the questions results like these create. While there’s blame to go around – preparation, game plan, in-game adjustments – from my perspective, the answers are twofold: 1) the Alabama defense remains one of the best, fastest, and most physical in the nation; and 2) the Trojan offensive line – one of the team’s supposed major strengths – was atrocious. Aside from Ronald Jones II’s 46-yard run, USC’s ground game was nonexistent. Due to constant harassment from Alabama rushers, Max Browne and Sam Darnold completed less than 50 percent of their passes combined – averaging 3.5 yards per attempt. In one 10-possession stretch, USC gained a single first down. The common lining: Alabama dominating the Trojan O-line.
Certainly, the Tide gave USC’s future opponents a road map on how to slow the Trojans. The good news for USC is that they will not face a defense on the remainder of the schedule that resembles Alabama’s. Yes, there are rumblings about the confidence of Utah State’s defenders coming into this game – I am sure the Aggies will have success at times. However, the Trojans have an opportunity to right the ship. Even with center Toa Lobendahn out for the season with a right MCL/ACL injury, Nico Falah is plenty capable of stepping in. The USC offensive line can – and must –reestablish itself early.
Expect USC to test the Aggies’ inexperienced linebackers with the run game – with what is reportedly a “mad” football team following a performance in which it was physically dominated, the best course is to try to regain some confidence in its own physicality. If Jones and Justin Davis can find success, that will only make things easier on Browne – who is likely to seek out JuJu Smith-Schuster often in an attempt to get him on track. The Aggies will want to get after Browne (or Darnold) but their leading returnee in sacks had three in 2015 – if USU has consistent success pressuring USC’s quarterbacks, it would be a major warning sign for the Trojans’ 2016 season.USC Defensive Gameplan
For about 20 minutes, the USC defense looked like it might be able to match Alabama’s big boys punch for punch. The Tide’s first five drives finished: punt, punt, fumble, punt, punt. The Trojans’ revamped front seven was getting a solid push and making life difficult for Bama QBs Blake Barnett and Hurts, while the USC secondary was getting the best of the Tide’s receiving corps. But then …
It sounds odd to say after the defense allowed 45 of Alabama’s 52 points, but there was a lot to like from the Trojans’ first run in Clancy Pendergast’s system. Until Noah Jefferson injured his shoulder and had to leave the game (he’s unlikely to play Saturday), USC’s inexperienced defensive line was solid, and allowed linebackers Cameron Smith and Michael Hutchings to make the kinds of plays they’re expected to make. In the secondary, Leon McQuay III had an outstanding game. But a couple of huge botched assignments and a few missed tackles were all the Tide needed. The toughest takeaway from the game for USC’s defense was the hangdog looks once Alabama seized control of the game in the third quarter. That must change.
This matchup is concerning. The Aggies have a mobile QB with a pair of veteran running backs and a solid tight end who is a great outlet when Myers gets in trouble. They’re green at wideout – but they’re a run-first group with an offensive line that has to be salivating when looking at USC’s young linemen. The Trojans will need more from Rasheem Green and Malik Dorton, with both Jefferson and Khaliel Rodgers looking iffy at best. Stevie Tu’ikolovatu looks like the glue that’s going to hold this group together – for now. USC must sell out against the Aggies run game and make Myers beat them with his arm.The Pick
To the untrained eye, Utah State appears to be the nominal cupcake on this year’s Trojan schedule. However, the Aggies are a very solid program from a conference that has some quality football teams (keep an eye on Boise State and San Diego State Washington State and Cal, respectively, this weekend – a Pac-12 split might be considered an upset). Utah State’s veteran-laden offense is the kind of crew that has given the Trojans problems over the years.
Falling between meetings with Alabama and Stanford – at the earliest kickoff time for a USC home football game since at least 1950 – isn’t exactly something that helps folks believe this isn’t a possible trap game: a smallish (and possibly surly) crowd in a morning game against an opponent that posted more than 400 yards rushing last week? Sounds awesome, right?
Reports of spirited, physical practices (and even a few overblown scuffles) are a positive sign for how the Trojans are responding to their trouncing. If USC cannot focus for a home opener after getting its tail kicked, this may be an even longer season than even the most negative Trojan fan could imagine. USC should have enough on defense to slow the Aggies rushing attack – and with it, their offense as a whole. Forcing an early turnover would be a nice way to get things going. Across the ball, USC’s offensive line has every opportunity to control this game. Are they the touted, experienced group everyone talked about from January through August? Or are they the same struggling group that has been inconsistent – at best – during the Trojans’ three-game losing streak? The group’s latest answer will tell the tale Saturday.
USC 34, Utah State 20
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 16 years. The editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry, he graduated 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)