By Andrew 'Orange #Gorrage' Gorringe'
Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs USC Secondary
Quarterback Travis Wilson is coming off his best passing game of the season, as he completed 72% of his passes for 297 yards and 2 TD’s, while not turning over the football. Wilson displayed poise and confidence facing the aggressive blitz scheme that Arizona State utilizes, which is a far cry from his performance against the Sun Devils in 2014. He once again showed that he has turned a corner and is one of the upper echelon QB’s in the conference.
Wilson’s big night also turned in to a big night for Kenneth Scott, as the 6th year senior had a career night, finishing up with 116 yards, a career high, and one touchdown. Scott lined up all over the field and was a matchup nightmare all game. Britain Covey was once again held in check, as he finished with just 1 catch on the night, but fellow freshman Tyrone Smith had a career high 3 catches and 50 yards, which included some pivotal first downs. Through 6 games the receivers have been pretty much what we expected them to be. Solid, but nothing special as they lack a big time playmaker that can stretch the field consistently.
The USC secondary has been great at times, and has been average at other times this season. Facing Stanford and Notre Dame they allowed an average of 270 yards, 2 touchdowns and 70% completions and zero interceptions; but when facing Arizona State and Washington, that average was 218 yards, 1 TD, 52% completions and 1 interception. The headliner of the group is do it all, freak of nature, Adoree Jackson at cornerback. The Utes may not see much of Jackson on defense though, as injuries to their receivers may force Jackson to play permanently on offense. The other members of the secondary are Chris Hawkins, Iman Marshall, John Plattenburg and Marvel Tell. Expect a steady rotation in the Trojan secondary.
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs USC Linebackers
There’s not much more that can be said about Devontae Booker, as his big fourth quarter against ASU helped the Utes solidify the win. His fourth quarter performance and performance the week prior continues to get him national publicity, as more and more people are starting to see that he is indeed the top running back in the conference. In relief of Booker, Joe Williams continues to provide solid runs and catches out of the backfield, though he needs to become a more patient runner. Utah continues to suffer from injuries at the tight end position, as starter Siale Fakailoatonga injured his knee vs ASU, and will be sidelined for the rest of the year. The drop off from Fakailoatonga and Harrison Handley is minimal at most, but the depth is certainly something to be worried about. Utah will look to hybrid tight end Caleb Repp, Wallace Gonzalez and walk on Ken Hampel to play alongside Handley
USC will rotate a lot of bodies at the linebacker positions in their 3-4 scheme, but the more permanent fixtures of that group are outside linebacker Sua Cravens, and middle linebacker Cameron Smith. Smith and Cravens lead the team in tackles with 53 and 41 respectively, and Cravens is one of the best defensive playmakers in the conference. Cravens can rush the passer, plug holes in the run game, and cover slot receivers or tight ends in the pass game. Rounding out the linebacker group is Anthony Sarao, Osa Masina, Porter Gustin, Scott Felix and Lamar Dawson, all of which have at least 13 tackles on the season. This group is athletic and big, but they aren’t great at getting off blocks, though they haven’t gotten much help from their offensive line. Their athleticism makes them a dangerous group though, as they have a lot of guys that can get after the quarterback.
Utah Offensive Line vs USC Defensive Line
At the beginning of the season, most believed the Utah offensive line would struggle protecting the quarterback, while excelling in run blocking. In the words of Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend.” The offensive line has been excellent so far in 2015 at protecting the QB’s, as they are tied for the least amount of sacks given up in the conference with 7, while they have struggled at times generating enough push in the run game to get Devontae Booker going. Against the aggressive blitz scheme of ASU, the line failed to generate enough running lanes for Booker, while also allowing a season high 5 sacks. Offensive guard Isaac Asiata has proven that he is one of the conference’s best pulling guards, and the right side of the offensive line has been nothing but solid with JJ Dielman and combo of Leka Uhatafe and Hiva Lutui. The lone area of concern still remains at left tackle, though the rotation between Sam Tevi and Jackson Barton over the past month seems to be working. Center Siaosi Aiono is emerging as one of the best center’s in the country, and should be in the running for all conference honors.
The biggest thing holding the USC defense back is there defensive line, as they’ve been the main culprit behind the USC defense being just average within the conference, as they are averaging about 2 sacks per game, and giving up an average of 167 rushing yards. The line has consistently failed to generate push and have failed to free up their athletic linebackers. Delvon Simmons leads the defensive line group with 26 tackles, while Kenny Bigelow Jr. has 2 sacks.
USC Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs Utah Secondary
Utah has already been able to get a win against the conference’s best quarterback, and now they’ll be looking to get one against the conferences second best QB. Cody Kessler is one of the best pocket passers in the country, as he’s completing 68% of his passes for an average of 300 yards per game, and has over a 3:1 TD/INT ratio. Kessler is excellent at maneuvering inside the pocket and is an extremely accurate passer. Kessler also does a great job at getting rid of the ball quickly, as evidenced by Utah only sacking him one time in 2014. Kessler is also a better athlete than most realize, and is able to pick up first downs with his legs if needed.
The class of this USC team is without a doubt their receivers. The group is led by sophomore JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has a team high 39 catches, 758 yards and 7 touchdowns. Smith-Schuster is one of the most well rounded receivers in the country, as he can body up small corners, but can also beat them with speed. It’s no secret that Kessler targets Smith-Schuster more than any other receiver, but that doesn’t make it any easier to slow him down. The rest of the receiver group is split between Adoree Jackson, Steven Mitchell, Darreus Rogers, Isaac Whitney and Deontay Burnett. Jackson is the real x factor of the group, as he’s a threat to score any time he touches the ball.
Improvement has been the name of the game for the Ute secondary, as the re-addition of Dominique Hatfield has sparked the Utah pass defense that showed vast improvement vs Oregon. Utah will rotate Hatfield, Cory Butler-Byrd and Reggie Porter at both corner back spots, while Justin Thomas mans the nickleback position, with Tevin Carter and Marcus Williams at safety. Williams leads the team in interceptions with 4, while Dominique Hatfield has quickly shown why he is considered an NFL corner with 3 interceptions himself. The secondary faced a group of very talented receivers against Oregon and Cal, and shut them down for the most part, while holding ASU QB Mike Bercovicci to just 50% completions. While this group has certainly become a strength for the defense, it doesn’t get any easier facing Kessler and the great group of USC receivers.
USC Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Utah Linebackers
Running back by committee has been the approach that USC has taken so far for the 2015 season, as the bulk of the carries have been split between 3 players. Freshman speedster Ronald Jones leads the team with 380 yards on 44 carries, while senior Tre Madden leads the team in carries with 63 for 356 yards and 4 TD’s. The Trojans will also rotate Justin Davis in this group, but most of the carries will be split between the first two backs mentioned. Madden is a solid running back, but isn’t much of a threat against a run defense as good as Utah. The Utes will have to keep Ronald Jones in check though, as his speed can be a dangerous weapon for the Trojan offense.
At this point, we all know what the Utah linebacker’s group is, and that is excellent. Jared Norris, Gionni Paul and even Jason Whittingham, who struggled mightily in the first 3 games, have been terrific over the past 3 games, as they helped hold the ASU offense to just 15 yards rushing. The biggest question mark heading in to this game though will be the health of Jared Norris, who left the ASU game late in the 4th quarter with an apparent leg injury. His status is unknown, and if he can’t go, it will be a big blow to the Ute defense. There’s really no weakness with this group, and they are a big part of why Utah is 6-0 this season.
Cal Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line
It hasn’t been a good couple of weeks for the Trojan offensive line, as they were exposed by a good Washington defense at home to the tune of 5 sacks, and the Notre Dame defense also had 2 sacks of their own, while holding the Trojan offense to just 150 yards rushing. This group is also experiencing some injuries, as starting left tackle Chad Wheeler has been held out of practice with “concussion like symptoms”, which has forced starting right tackle Zach Banner over to left tackle, with Chuma Edoga at taking over at right tackle. This is a massive group of linemen, but they’re not the most fleet of foot.
After a sub par pass rush in the first two games of the year, the Ute defensive line has finally dialed up the pressure over the past 4 games, and it has proven to be successful, as they have been straight up dominant in those 4 games. Kylie Fitts has emerged as a legit pass rushing threat while Hunter Dimick recovered from injury, and the rotation of Seni Fauonuku, Stevie Tuikolovatu, Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei at defensive tackle has caused nightmares for opposing offenses. Seni Fauonuku has especially been fantastic in 2015, as the senior seems to have re-focused all his attention on having a standout season, in hopes to show that he’s able to play in the NFL. Jason Fanaika and Pita Taumoepenu have rotated at the right defensive end spot, and Fanaika has proven to be dominant in run situations, with Pita T again being the pass rush specialist, and leads the conference in sacks this season with 6. The return of Hunter Dimick has only made this group better, and there’s not a single offensive line that should be able to outmatch this group.
Utah Special Teams vs Cal Special Teams
If there’s been a group that has had an up and down season for Utah, it’s been it’s special teams. In Whittingham’s own words, this group almost single handedly lost them the game against ASU, as they were responsible for 15 of ASU’s 18 points that night. The kickoff coverage was bad, the punt coverage was bad, and I don’t even need to discuss how dumb that fake kickoff play was, as that directly led to 5 ASU points itself. Luckily, Tom Hackett and Andy Phillips had outstanding game kicking the ball. Hackett was again beastly in his punts, and also had TD saving tackle on the punt return, and Phillips knocked through 2 big field goals to help cement the game. While the coverage teams certainly need work, the kickoffs themselves need work too, as they haven’t been reaching the end zone, which has been leading to more and more kick off returns for opponents.
Utah will be facing probably the best group of special teams it’s faced all year, and that’s due in large part to just one player. Adoree Jackson. I’ve already mentioned him twice in this preview, but Jackson may be most dangerous when he’s returning kicks and punts. Though he hasn’t returned any for touchdowns in 2015, he did have 2 as a true freshman last year. Kicking duties are held by Andre Heidari and Kris Albarado, and Heidari is 5 of 7 on the year with FG’s, and Albarado is averaging 42 yards a punt. The Trojans have also given up one punt return TD on the season.