Our extensive USC vs. Colorado game preview

Game 6: ‘Today, I’ve Got to Make My Way From Denver to L.A.’

The Buffaloes seek Pac-12 stardom. The Trojans seek an even record. Which team will take the next step?

The USC Trojans (2-3, 1-2 in the Pac-12) host the surprising Colorado Buffaloes (4-1, 2-0), ranked No. 21 by the Associated Press and No. 23 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, on Saturday, Oct. 8, at 1 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a Pac-12 Network cable television audience. It’s the 11th meeting between the schools (the sixth since CU joined the conference in 2011), with USC winning the previous 10. A year ago, the Trojans overcame a 14-point deficit to post a 27-24 mid-November win in Boulder. In the previous L.A. meeting, USC thumped Colorado, 56-28, behind Cody Kessler’s school-record seven touchdown passes.

Last week, redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold continued to impress, throwing for 352 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-20 dismantling of previously unbeaten Arizona State at the Coliseum. The Trojan defense held the Sun Devils to season lows in points (even after two late TDs against USC’s reserves) and total yards (303 — more than 200 fewer than their previous per-game average). Meanwhile, the Buffaloes pounded Oregon State, 47-6, in Boulder. Avoiding any semblance of a letdown after a huge road victory at Oregon the week before, Colorado rolled up 563 total yards (247 rushing) – the fourth time in five games that CU has topped the 500 total-yard mark.

With last week’s win, USC Coach Clay Helton (8-7 at USC in parts of three seasons) avoided his record as interim and full-time head coach falling under .500 (the Trojans are now 6-4 against Pac-12 foes under his tutelage). Fourth-year Colorado headman Mike MacIntyre (14-28 at CU, 4-25 in Pac-12 games; 30-49 overall in seven seasons as a college head coach) seems to be thisclose to getting a program that bottomed out earlier this decade back over the hump. His emotional reaction to CU’s 41-38 win in Eugene two weeks ago was heartening for anyone who follows college football. Now that CU is ranked for the first time in 11 years, how will the Buffaloes react to success?

Colorado Offense

Colorado made two coaching hires prior to the 2016 season – both involved Buff legends returning to the fold. Former QB Darian Hagan was promoted to running backs coach from an administrative role, while former receiver Darren Chiaverini joined the staff as co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, teaming with returning OC Brian Lindgren to run the offense. The staff has tuned up CU’s fast-paced offense – thanks to a group of veteran playmakers. Colorado is third in the conference in rushing (218.6 yards per game), passing (312.6 yards per game, No. 19 nationally), scoring (43.2 points per game, 16th nationally), and total offense (531.2 yards per game, No. 9 nationally). The Buffs also have been effective on third down (converting 49.4 percent, second in the Pac-12 and No. 20 nationally), which has helped them hold the ball for more than 33 minutes per game (again, third in the conference). Colorado also has been a big-play offense, with seven pass completions of 50 yards or more. CU has been able to weather an ankle injury to senior QB Sefo Liufau (54-of-76, 768 yards, six TDs, no INTs; 4.4 yards per carry on 28 rush attempts), suffered in the third quarter at Michigan on Sept. 17. Steven Montez, a 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman, has been outstanding since and seems likely to get the call on Saturday, though Liufau could play. He’s completed 48-of-76 passes for 743 yards with eight TDs and two interceptions, while also carrying the ball 33 times for 193 yards (5.9 yards-per) to rank third on the team in rushing. He passed for 333 yards, rushed for 135, and accounted for four TDs (three passing) in the Colorado’s win at Oregon.

Even though Colorado lost all-time career receiving leader Nelson Spruce (now with the Los Angeles Rams), the Buffs lead the conference in yards-per-catch (14.6). The returning trio of juniors Devin Ross, Shay Fields, and Bryce Bobo has been outstanding. Ross averages 14 yards on team-leading 26 catches out of the slot. With five TD grabs, he shares the team lead with Fields who has been the big play target – four of his 19 catches are for 50 yards or more. He’s averaging 24.2 yards per catch. Bobo has made the acrobatic normal – especially on his game-winning snag at Oregon – while averaging 15.8 yards on 17 catches. Jay MacIntyre, the coach’s son, has 12 catches (11.4 yards-per) and JC transfer Kabion Ento made his presence known last week, grabbing his first three passes as a Buff, including a 69-yard TD. Tight ends have accounted for just three catches so far in 2016, none by senior starter Sean Irwin.

Junior Phillip Lindsay is the leader of an undersized but shifty running back group. He’s averaging 4.8 yards per carry on a team-leading 70 totes with six TDs. He’s also caught 11 passes (8.3 yards-per). Sophomore Kyle Evans (52 carries, 4.1 yards per, two TDs; 5 catches, 66 yards) has been a surprise, and junior Donovan Lee (3.5 yards-per-carry on 28 tries; 5 catches, 38 yards) also sees time.

Junior left tackle Jeromy Irwin (tight end Sean’s brother; they are two of a set of triplets) returned from a torn ACL suffered in CU’s second game of 2015 and gives the Buffaloes three solid returning starters. Returning junior left guard Gerrad Kough and senior center Alex Kelley have been big factors in CU’s improved running game and pass protection (Colorado’s given up just eight sacks). Redshirt freshman Tim Lynott Jr. has seized the right guard job from junior Jonathan Huckins, while junior Sam Kronshage (three starts) and redshirt freshman Aaron Haigler (two starts) have shared the right tackle position.

Colorado Defense

Second-year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has overseen an incredible improvement since his arrival. How many teams can say they’ve had a different leading tackler each of the past three seasons – and add that those three players are all in the lineup this season? Colorado – with linebackers Addison Gillam (2013), Kenneth Olugbode (2014), and Rick Gamboa (2015) – is one. Veteran leadership and a more aggressive style (nine turnovers forced, 13 sacks) have helped the Buffs rank No. 1 in the conference in pass defense (150.4 yards-per-game, No. 9 nationally), third-down efficiency defense (opponents’ succeed 29.9 percent of the time), and total defense (290.4 yards-per-game, No. 13 nationally). Colorado is still middle of the road against the run (140 yards-per-game allowed, sixth in the Pac-12) but has risen to fourth in the conference in points allowed (20.6).

Up front in their fluid 3-4 set, senior nose tackle Josh Tupou (20 tackles, two for loss) sets the tone, especially against the run. Senior end Jordan Carrell (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks) remains a stalwart, and senior Samson Kafovalu (a combo tackle/end, 21 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is another key cog. Juniors Leo Jackson III (eight tackles) and Timothy Coleman (five stops) and sophomore Jase Franke (eight tackles) give the unit solid depth.

Junior rush linebacker Derek McCartney was lost for the season in week two with a knee injury. Though junior Christian Shaver (four tackles) and sophomore Terran Hasselbach (two stops) are listed atop the depth chart at that outside spot, in recent weeks, sophomore safety Ryan Moeller (11 tackles) has started there in a hybrid role. Senior Jimmie Gilbert (a team-leading four sacks among 17 tackles) is firmly ensconced at the other outside spot. Inside, Olugbode is doing it all for CU – he has 49 tackles (after notching double-digit stops in each of the past three games), three tackles for loss, a sack, and a fumble recovery. Gamboa (35 tackles and a pick-six) and Gillam (17 tackles) handle the other inside spot.

Senior corner Chidobe Awuzie, who served as CU’s top nickel back in 2015, is the Buffs’ best all-around corner. He has 22 tackles, one sack, and one interception. Across the field, senior Ahkello Witherspoon (eight tackles, seven pass breakups, a game-clinching INT at Oregon) is physical and experienced. Sophomore Isaiah Oliver (11 tackles, one for loss) is getting the most looks as a third corner. Senior strong safety Tedric Thompson and junior free safety Afolabi Laguda are the group’s leading tacklers with 25 each.

Colorado Special Teams

Senior placekicker Diego Gonzalez was lost for the season with an Achilles injury at Michigan, leaving true freshman Davis Price handling kickoffs, PATs, and field goals. CU ranks No. 113 in kickoff return defense. However, Price has made all five PATs and both of his field goal attempts, including a 54-yarder. Sophomore Alex Kinney averages 42.6 yards in 22 attempts, but has had one blocked, and the Buffs are ranked No. 122 in punt coverage, allowing 18.6 yards per attempt. MacIntyre is averaging 10.3 yards on 12 punt return opportunities. Freshman defensive back Anthony Julmisse averages 22.3 yards on kickoff returns.

USC Offensive Gameplan

Not only has Darnold’s play been beyond expectations, his physical ability has opened up the Trojan offense. His playmaking ability kept both Utah and ASU off balance, allowing USC’s playmakers – especially JuJu Smith-Schuster and Justin Davis – to shine. After catching just 11 passes (for nine yards per catch with two TDs) in the season’s first three games, Smith-Schuster has snagged 15 passes in the past two for an average of 14.7 yards and three scores. Davis was averaging just 3.6 yards per carry with 135 rushing yards through the first three weeks. In the past two games, he’s carried for 249 yards, averaging 10.4 yards per carry, and has scored his first two TDs of the season.

Once again, turn your attention to Shotgun Spratling’s outstanding weekly participation chart analysis. He touches on some other keys for a USC offense that MacIntyre called a “spread” earlier this week. The Trojans, backing up Helton’s contention that they use tight ends too often to be called a “spread,” were extremely successful last week when lining up with three wideouts, a tight end, and a single back – averaging nearly seven yards per play on 37 plays. When that tight end was split out, giving USC more of a four-wide look, the Trojans were even better, averaging nearly 15 yards on nine snaps.

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Yes, USC’s offense has come alive under Darnold. However, the Trojans have still struggled on third down. USC converted just three-of-13 third-down opportunities last week – a concern against CU’s stout third-down defense. Expect USC to stick with what’s worked, using the double-threat presented by Darnold to force Colorado to pick their poison between Smith-Schuster, Deontay Burnett (who had a huge game against ASU) and the rest of the Trojan receivers – or tailbacks Davis and Ronald Jones II, who the Trojan coaching staff is expecting to break free any game now. Keeping Colorado off balance is crucial to slowing its pass rush – the Buffs have shown that they’re willing to bring heat from just about every position group.

USC Defensive Gameplan

Holding Arizona State to 303 yards (and 4.3 yards per play) was impressive. Holding the Sun Devils to 75 rushing yards and six-of-17 on third down might have been even more impressive. USC’s commitment to getting pressure on quarterback Manny Wilkins threw the Devils’ timing off. While the Trojans notched three sacks, they were in the backfield early and often – a far cry from the performance at Utah. Freshness was also a key – after allowing Stanford (34 minutes) and Utah (37 minutes) to control possession, the Trojans were able to get off the field more effectively and ended up splitting time of possession almost evenly against ASU.

Another fast-paced spread offense arrives Saturday. It’s the same concept that the Buffs have been running in recent years. However, their experience and newfound game-breaking ability have led to a massive improvement. Whether Montez or Liufau is under center, the tenets are the same: maximize the pass/run capability of the QB to open up holes in the opposing defense for CU’s stable of backs and receivers to make plays. Intriguingly, Colorado has combined quick-strike ability with clock-control ability – CU has held the ball for more than 33 minutes per game, likely due to its incredible effectiveness on third down.

Can the Trojans find times to work different personnel into the game with Colorado expected to operate at a breakneck pace? Even though Clancy Pendergast talked before the ASU game about getting certain players – especially on USC’s thin defensive line – just a few plays off, substitutions remained limited beyond package subs. While the Trojans likely will try to bring the same pressure they brought against ASU, USC must be more cognizant of the Buffaloes’ rushing attack. Getting Montez – who’s still just a three-game starter – or Liufau off of their timing and reads will be the absolute key to whatever success the Trojan defense has on Saturday.

The Pick

At the end of August, this game was considered part of the Trojans’ much friendlier October schedule. Instead, a ranked Colorado team arrives on its first-ever Pac-12 winning streak. While the Buffs’ win at Oregon was the signature win they’ve been seeking, their demolition of Oregon State was just as impressive. This team is flying high – experience plus skill plus confidence make CU a very dangerous opponent.

USC should know the danger CU brings – just look at last year’s tough battle against a Buff team that was banged up and nowhere near as explosive. The Trojans have no reason to overlook Colorado – especially given the fact that the Buffs reside atop the South Division standings. Can USC use last week’s win as a springboard? Or will it backslide?

The answer to that question likely will be known quickly. While the Trojans have allowed just 20 first-quarter points to opponents through five games, Colorado has scored 85 points in the opening stanza, tops in the country. USC must minimize the early damage if it hopes to enforce its will on this game. One other thing to watch: can Adoree Jackson and the Trojan return teams, among the best in the nation, take advantage of Colorado’s poor coverage teams? A big play or two there could be the difference in what should be a shootout.

USC 38, Colorado 31

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 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 thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)

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