Utah Offensive Line vs USC Defensive Line
Utah Offensive Line
The Ute line has given the coaches Jekyll-and-Hyde fits so far through the first four games of the season. Multiple position and player changes have taken place as the Utes have struggled to find five dependable starters that can produce in both the running and passing games. After a solid performance against Brigham Young the line was embarrassed against ASU leaving the Utes back at square-one looking for answers. Sam Brenner will start again at left tackle, Tevita Stevens will start at center, and freshman Jeremiah Poutasi will likely start again at right tackle. The guards? They're up in the air every week it seems. Latu Heimuli, Vyncent Jones, Jeremiah Tofaeono, and others have rotated through these positions this season and there are still more potential players on Utah's bench. Redshirt freshman Siaosi Aiono will get his first start due to injuries to Jones and Heimuli and he'll need to produce in a hurry if the Utes want to get their offense on track.
USC Defensive Line
The SC defensive line lost more starters (3) than any other returning unit this past offseason. Although they may be undersized, according to Kyle Whittingham they make up for their small stature with athleticism. There are playmakers on the line, perhaps none bigger than defensive end Morgan Breslin. Breslin is quite simply a game-changer. In USC's previous outing Breslin recorded 3.5 sacks bringing his season total to 5.5. He is currently tied for 5th nationally in tackles for loss and 7th nationally in sacks. Breslin may not have a better matchup on paper than he'll get this week as Utah plans to start true freshman Jeremiah Poutasi and redshirt freshman Siaosi Aiono on his side of the line. Up the middle George Uko and Antwaun Woods have been a big surprise and have made life very difficult for opposing running backs. Together they 15 tackles, 5 TFL's, 3.5 sacks and 1 forced fumble. Wes Horton, senior defensive end opposite Breslin, has started 24 games over the past 4 seasons and has 1 sack and 1 tackle for loss so far in 2012. Finally, keep an eye on freshman defensive end phenom Leonard Williams. Williams is tied for 20th nationally and 5th in the Pac-12 in sacks. Williams can also play linebacker.
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs USC Linebackers
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends
Sheesh this position group, which was believed to be the strength of the offense heading into the season, has had a really hard time producing even average numbers in four games this year. John White's injury set the running game back but backups Kelvin York and Jarrell Oliver haven't delivered despite being given opportunities to play and produce. Some of their struggles can be attributed to the lack of continuity on the offensive line but the backs have missed clear holes and cut-back lanes as well and that can't be blamed on the line. John White will likely play against USC but his effectiveness against a great Trojan defensive line will be something to watch. If White and the others can't produce once again then it will be a very long night for the Utes on offense. Tight ends Jake Murphy, David Rolf, and Westlee Tonga have each had their moments of brilliance this season but as a whole have fallen short of expectations. They're all skilled players that add depth to the Ute offense and need to be utilized more going forward.
In 2011 the talk of the USC defense was centered around their linebackers, more specifically the fact that they had chosen to start three freshmen. Despite the apparent risk the decision to play the youngsters turned out to be a great one as Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard finished 2011 as first-team freshmen All-American's and Bailey was named Pac-12 freshman defensive player of the year. If you have to watch just one, Bailey is the player to look for among the starting three. He has recorded 32 tackles across 4 games while hauling in 3 interceptions, good for 6th nationally. Pullard isn't far behind Bailey; his 25 tackles, 1.5 TFL's, 1 INT and 1 TD are just as impressive. Together these two are amazing talents at the outside linebacker positions for USC. In the middle Lamar Dawson has recorded 20 tackles and is a solid run stopper. He posted 9 stops last week against Cal.
Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs USC Corners and Safeties
Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers
Jon Hays or Travis Wilson? That's the question being asked among Ute fans lately as an ever-growing segment seem ready to hand the reigns over to Wilson to see what he can do. Hays? Well for the most part fans know who and what he is. Despite posting a 7-4 record as a starter they aren't overly impressed with the way he leads the team. The starter against USC will be Jon Hays who at this point gives the Utes the best chance to pull the upset against the Trojans, but his leash is quickly shortening with each sub-par performance he has as the Travis Wilson-era creeps ever closer. Utah's weapons on the outside have been anything but for the majority of the season. For every great touchdown reception we've seen from the wideouts this year we've seen even more missed opportunities as the QB's and WR's just can't seem to get on the same page. Devonte Christopher has been a no-show this year despite being the leader of the receivers and his presence is needed if Utah hopes to have an improved passing game going forward.
USC Corners and Safeties
If there is one weakness on this USC defense, it might just be their second cornerback position. What else is there to complain about when your defense consists of those players I've already discussed along with T.J. McDonald, Jawanza Starling, and Nickell Robey? Robey, the starting CB for the Trojans, is almost unbeatable. He's so good head coach Lane Kiffin says teams have just stopped throwing his way. His numbers may be down a bit this year, but that can be attributed to the amount of respect he's given from opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Robey was an all-Pac-12 player in 2011 that finished last season with 2 interceptions; he has 16 tackles and 2 pass deflections in 2012. Free safety TJ McDonald is an NFL-caliber player on the Trojans roster. He was good enough to go pro last year but decided to stick around for a shot at a national championship. He's an all-purpose player near the top of the team in tackles; he has also deflected 3 passes, has 1 interception, and has blocked a field goal. Strong safety Jawanza Starling is USC's Brian Blechen. He may not be the flashiest but the guy is a playmaker (some may remember his 80-yard fumble return against Notre Dame in 2011). Starling has 2 interceptions this season. That brings us back to Torrin Harris, the second corner. As teams continue to stay away from Nickell Roby, Harris receives more and more attention. He is a solid corner with good coverage skills but has given up a few big plays as teams game-plan away from Robey. His matchup with Dres Anderson should be one that Utah can take advantage of is the offensive line and quarterback can get him the ball.
Utah Defensive Line vs USC Offensive Line
Utah Defensive Line
After their scintillating performance against BYU the Utah defensive line followed up with a disappointing night against Arizona State. The Ute line is a fantastic group definitely worthy of the praise they've received this year when they're playing together and all on the same page; but their outing in Tempe fell well short of expectations and will need to improve mightily if they want to continue to help the team win games. Star Lotulelei wasn't himself against the Sun Devils; he lacked the push and force that he typically exhorts on the field and was merely ‘another lineman' throughout the game. He has to be more than that. Joe Kruger was held out at defensive end and his pass-rush abilities were clearly missed. If Joe misses another game Trevor Reilly will likely move back to defensive end to fill the void. All-in-all this is a solid unit even with the injury to Kruger, they just need to come out and play up to their full potential.
USC Offensive Line
USC's lone loss on its offensive line last season was Matt Kalil, the junior All-American left tackle that was chosen 4th overall in last year's NFL draft. Their returners are all very good when healthy but unfortunately the injury bug has bitten their top returner Khaled Holmes. Holmes went down with a knee injury in SC's win against Syracuse and has struggled to get back to 100% since. His status for the game on Thursday is doubtful which could bode well for Utah and nose tackle Star Lotulelei. If unable to play Holmes will likely be replaced by redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi who started in Holmes' place against Stanford two weeks ago. Left guard Marcus Martin was a first team freshman All-American last season. Martin and right guard John Martinez both started all 12 games for the Trojans in 2011 and are both solid players in all aspects of the game. Kevin Graf, 2011's starting right tackle, has taken over for Kalil on the left side. His experience gives Matt Barkley great protection at the most important position on the line.
Utah Linebackers vs USC Running Backs and Tight Ends
Just when this unit looked to be turning the corner and moving away from their media-imposed ‘weak link' moniker they went out and laid an egg against Arizona State. The Sun Devils are talented and fast and the Ute defense, specifically the linebackers, fell victim to just how speedy they are. The injury to Joe Kruger at defensive end took one of Utah's best pass-defense linebackers out of the rotation in Trevor Reilly which left them a man down and unprepared to defend what was thrown at them. With Kruger's injury likely to linger into the USC game Utah will probably give up Reilly to the line again. This week, however, Jacoby Hale and Victor Spikes will replace him hopefully giving Utah a little bit of speed at the second level. L.T. Filiaga is now the starting middle linebacker and he will be counted on heavily to stop the USC rushing attack.
USC Running Backs and Tight Ends
USC run game was a major concern for Lane Kiffin heading into fall camp but they received a huge boost when Penn State star running back Silas Redd decided to transfer to SC amid the fallout of the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky controversy. Redd has some of the best raw talent Ute fans will see this season and can really tear apart a defense when he's in the zone as Cal fans can most certainly tell you. Against the Bears last week Redd rushed for 158 yards on 21 carries, a whopping 7.5 yards per carry. On the season Redd has rushed for 338 yards and 4 touchdowns while splitting time with last season's starter Curtis McNeal. McNeal was slotted as the starter for 2012 before the Redd transfer and although he was replaced on the depth chart he still sees plenty of action on the field. His 6.2 yard per carry season average leads all backs and his 225 total yards, including 115 yards last week against Cal. USC loves to use their fullbacks in the passing game out of the backfield so keep an eye on Soma Vainuku. He hasn't seen a ton of action so far this year but he's always a threat to catch a pass in the flat. SC's tight ends are experienced and talented. Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble have combined 165 receiving yards and 2 TD's this year. Grimble is the main playmaker of the two.
Utah Corners and Safeties vs USC Quarterback and Wide Receivers
Utah Corners and Safeties
Moe Lee, Utah's starting cornerback next to Ryan Lacy when the season began, has had a rough couple of games. One week after giving up the big play to BYU on 4th and 12 that kept the Cougars' hopes alive he struggled mightily against Arizona State and found himself on the bench for much of the second half. It's no secret Lee has talent but is lack of awareness at times has left him out of position and has cost the team big gains on multiple occasions. This week Lee has been replaced on the depth chart by Reggie Topps and will see the bulk of his reps at corner in nickel and dime packages. Free safety Eric Rowe is expected to be back and at full strength this week which will be good relief for a safety unit that was beat consistently against Arizona State. Rowe's return will force Quade Chappuis to the bench behind Brian Blechen and the coaches are hoping their two freshmen All-American safeties will give the secondary the tools they need to defend against two of the best wide receivers in the country.
USC Quarterback and Wide Receivers
Matt Barkley was arguably the second-best pro quarterback in last season's NFL draft class. The only problem is he didn't go pro (to the surprise of many). Barkley, like Oklahoma's Sam Bradford a few years ago, said he loved USC and wasn't ready to give up his college experience just yet (the shot the Trojans had at a national championship didn't hurt either). Barkley entered the year as a Heisman favorite and has played for the most part as well as people expected him to. USC's loss to Stanford week 3 may have derailed his Heisman campaign but the team still has an outside shot at a national title and Barkley will give the team a great shot at getting there. Robert Woods and Marquise Lee, Barkley's top two receivers on the outside, are arguably the two best receivers in the country and certainly the best wide receiver duo. Woods came into the season garnering all the attention but Lee has just as much playmaking ability as he does. His 297 all-purpose yards and 197 receiving yards against Hawaii week 1 show just how explosive and dangerous he can be. Outside of Woods and Lee make sure to keep an eye out for freshman Nelson Agholor. He hasn't scored yet for the Trojans but his playing time is increasing each week as the youngster finds ways to make plays and he's a dangerous option in multi-receiver sets.
Unit Matchups - USC at Utah
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