Utah Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers vs USC Secondary
Musical QB’s. That’s been the theme of Utah’s QB situation the past two weeks as both Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson have started games, only to be pulled and finish it on the bench. Travis Wilson gets’ the starting nod this week but we do expect to see Thompson as well in this game at some point. Wilson finished the OSU game as the QB and looked like the slightly better passer as he was making quicker decisions, but was still off on some of his throws. Both QB’s struggle going through more than two reads and neither really trust their OL to give them a clean pocket, so they look to run early and often. The biggest difference between the two QB’s has been ball control as Wilson has yet to turn the ball over, and that ultimately is the reason why he’s the current starter, but he has to make better throws if he wants to keep that job. The QB’s haven’t been helped out by the WR’s much lately as the WR group has caught a case of “the drops” over the past 3 games. Starters Dres Anderson, Kenneth Scott and Kaelin Clay have all had crucial drive killing drops after great starts to the season. Tim Patrick has been receiving more playing time as a result and has been good in his appearances. It’s going to take a combined effort between the QB’s and WR’s this week to get the pass game back on track.
The conference leaders in INT’s, the Trojan secondary has been a mixed bag thus far as they’ve played outstanding games (Oregon State, Fresno State, Boston College & Colorado), but have also had poor games (Stanford, Arizona State & Arizona). There’s a lot of talent in the secondary but it’s mostly young talent with a lot of freshman and sophomores playing significant snaps. Sua Cravens splits time as a safety and linebacker and is one of the most dynamic defensive players in the conference, as he leads USC with 4 PBU’s & 2 INT’s , 1 of which was returned for a TD. The other leaders in the USC secondary are freshman Adoree Jackson, freshman Chris Hawkins and junior Kevon Seymour. They’re all extremely athletic and fast, but give up some size in the pass game.
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs USC Linebackers
It's a Devontae Booker offense now as Utah big back has shown to be an elite level talent, running all over Pac 12 opponents to the tune of 187+ yards per game in Pac 12 play. This guy wasn't even the starter to begin the season and now he might not only be the best in the Pac 12, but one of the best in the country. USC is going to key on Booker, and Booker alone. Until Utah shows that they can pass the ball, opposing defenses will stack the box and try to slow the JC transfer. Whether or not they can may determine who wins this game. USC is one of the few teams in the conference that has the athletes and size to do so. Outside of the one debacle at Boston College where the Trojans gave up over 450 yards on the ground, they've been fairly stout against the run. Each opponent (other than BC) has been held to under 175 yards, with three of the last four opponents notching 58, 31, and yards on the ground respectively. Middle linebacker Hayes Pullard is a first team all conference candidate. He leads the team with 55 tackles, including 2 tackles for loss, and 5 pass breakups. Inside backer Anthony Sarao isn't huge at 6-0, 220 pounds, but is fourth on the team with 44 tackles. he's pitched in 2 pass breakups and an interception. Su'a Cravens is a converted safety and one of the most talented defensive players in the country at the linebacker spot. He has 31 tackles on the year, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 4 pass breakups. In short, he does everything. JR Tavai rounds out the group and is generally used as a pass rusher. He has tallied 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Scott Felix will also get some run behind Tavai.
Utah Offensive Line vs USC Defensive Line
First and foremost, All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams IS the best and most talented player on USC. At 6-5 and 290, he's not only a beast with great size, but speed wise, he moves more like a 250 pounder. National and NFL media are drooling all over this guy and even though his sack totals aren't off the charts like Dimick or Orchard, Williams presents a major problem for the likes of JJ Dielman and CJ Poutasi. As a team, USC isn't as impressive as Utah when it comes to sacks or tackles for loss, but honestly but who is? USC boasts a better than average run defense, despite the debacle at Boston College. In addition to Leonard Williams, look for Antwaun Woods (6-1, 325) trying to stuff the middle and either Delvon Simmons (6-5, 295) or Claude Pelon (6-4, 295) playing opposite of Williams. Without question Utah's line has improved, but they are certainly below average in their pass blocking, but better when driving their opponents down field. Without truly athletic tackles on either side (Poutasi and Dielman are built and move more like guards), expect to see a lot of pressure around the edges which could hamper a very fragile Utah passing game.
USC Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers vs Utah Secondary
Remember when Cody Kessler was a quarterback with a lot of unanswered questions coming into the season? Halfway through the season it seems all of those questions are gone. The USC signal caller has been stellar so far pushing the doubters aside and showing he has the right stuff to lead the talented Trojan offense. He has 18 touchdowns to just 1 INT and is throwing for an average of 269 yards per game. Conversely, Utah has given up 11 passing TDs and 7 INT (though only 3 of those 7 INTs has come from a DB). Nelson Agholor came in on the second team on Phil Steele's Midseason All Pac-12 Team, and that may be too low. He is averaging 76.1 yards per game and has 7 TDs on the season, but he has a '2013 Brandin Cooks at Rice-Eccles' feel to me - which bodes horribly for the Utah defense. USC also has a freshman Juju Smith that has emerged as a clear #2 receiver for the Trojans. I don't think I need to remind Utah fans what two top-notch WRs did to the Utes secondary the last time the Trojans visited Salt Lake. If the Utes can get pressure on Kessler, it may force him to make throws he isn't comfortable with or confident in. The Boston College DBs looked better than they were when there was pressure, and the Utah DBs desperately need their front seven buddies to help slow down this passing attack that unleashed on Colorado last week. Straight up the USC signal-caller and receivers overmatch the Utah DBs.
USC Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Utah Linebackers
If Devontae Booker isn't he best running back in the Pac 12, Buck Allen is. He leads the conference in rushing at 129.9 yards per game and an average of 6.1 yards per carry. At 6-1, 220 pounds, he's a powerful runner that has plenty of speed. Allen is also a threat out of the backfield with 24 catches on the year. Allen is not only the best back Utah has faced so far this season, he might end up being the best they face all season long. Backing him up is Justin Davis who is putting up just under 50 yards per game.The Utes have shutdown the run for the most part in Pac 12 play this season giving up less than 4 yards per carry to each opponent so far (although UCLA total is skewed a bit by the 10 sacks). Regardless, they've been close to dominant on the year in giving up only 114 yards per game. Gionni Paul is one of the best in the conference. Despite missing two games, Paul is third on the team with 37 tackles and leads the team with 3 interceptions. Norris is the team leader with 58 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. Jason Fanaika is a new starter at linebacker this week. He has spent most of the season on the line, but made the move last week against Oregon State. He has posted 22 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks this year.
USC Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line
Another young but talented position group for the Trojans is their offensive line. Center Max Tuerk is the leader of the group and is far and away the best lineman right now for the Trojans. Sophomore Chad Wheeler starts at LT and at 6’7-280 is quick off the snap but can be vulnerable to bull rushes. A pair of true freshmen are at the guard spots with Toa Lebendahn at LG & Viane Talamaivao at RG. Another sophomore, Zach Banner, completes the group at RT and is a mountain of a man at 6’9-350. The group has been inconsistent at times this season, especially in pass pro as they’re tied for 8th in the conference in sacks given up (16), but are strong in the run game and do a good job of getting to the second level. They’ll face their biggest test against the conference’s best defensive line in Utah.
The Ute defensive line continued their dominance last week as they totaled 5 sacks and 10 TFL’s against Oregon State and will look to continue that dominance against an average USC offensive line. Nate Orchard was dominant once again, as was Hunter Dimick, but the biggest surprise from the Oregon State game may have been the play of sophomore DE Pita Taumoepenu. Pita T is so quick off the edge and does a great job of using his hands, and had 1.5 sacks & TFL’s against the Beavers. With Orchard and Dimick being so strong, Pita T presents a much different challenge for offensive lines when lined up as a pass rusher. Freshman DT Lowell Lotulelei looked good once again against the Beavers, as did Seni Fauonuku, and junior Clint Shepard returned from injury and had a nice game as well. The interior of the defensive line is incredibly deep and presents a huge challenge for opposing teams to block.
The easiest matchup week-in and week-out is the Utah Special Teams vs any other Special Teams in the country. Tom Hackett leads the Pac-12 in net punting and is third in the country at 47.1 yards/punt. Andy Phillips is leading the Pac-12 at 2.17 field goals per game and has made 13 total on the season. He is also leading the Pac-12 at points/game scored. Kaelin Clay leads the country and conference with 3 punt returns for TDs and is averaging almost 21 yards on every return. Utah will win this matchup and the one thing to keep an eye on is the return game. USC is allowing 34.5 yards/punt and 38.0 yards/kickoff. Kaelin Clay has been quiet for sometime now, and hopefully he comes back with a bang and swings momentum for the Utes in this critical phase of the game.
James Cella, Andrew Gorringe, Jayson Jones, and Brian Swinney contributed to this report.
Game Matchups: Utah vs USC
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