Friday's matchup against USC will be Utah's first major test in their pursuit of a Pac-12 South title. To preview the action, UteZone caught up with Trojan insider Dan Weber of USCFootball.com to get his take on what to expect.
UteZone: Sam Darnold will get his first start for USC against the Utes. What prompted the switch and what changes do you expect to see with Darnold at the helm? Will he have a short leash?
Dan Weber: Don't think they'll short-leash Sam at all. They really think he's special and it's just been a matter of time, whether it was all season, if the team and Max Browne were off to a great start or next. They just haven't been getting the ball into the end zone against the two tough defenses they played -- one TD in four halves against Alabama and Stanford. Now its pretty obvious that the other 10 teams in the Pac-12 -- Stanford excepted -- would be 1-2 had they played USC's schedule. It's just the way they've looked doing it and they had to make a change. Clearly, the quarterback spot was not high on the list of things that have gone wrong -- the O-line in disarray, the wide receivers not getting separation, too many penalties in the Stanford game stopping them, all of those things. You'll see a quarterback run the ball by design. You'll see more focus on what this offense can do and maybe not such a "grab-bag" approach to the offense trying to do everything. They must be able to run the ball.
UZ: In its two games against P5 competition, USC's offense has struggled. What do you expect the Trojans to do against Utah to right the ship?
DW: We'll say it again: They must be able to run the ball. If they can, they will be able to pass it. It's the classic formula for USC football success over the years. And despite the talent Utah has up front, USC must be able to take it right to them and at them and power run the ball without stopping itself. This will be a big test for an experienced USC O-line that has badly underperformed against two really good opponents.
UZ: Ute fans know defensive tackle Stevie Tuikolovatu well. How much of an impact do you expect him to have on the game. How would you rate the performance of the rest of the defensive line? How do you expect the defense to perform in Salt Lake City?
DW: Stevie T. has been one of the absolute bright spots of the season for USC. His maturity, leadership and surprising athleticism for a 340-pounder have been just what USC has needed up front where because of injuries to two players who were expected to start and the graduation of the top five players there from last year was exceedingly thin and young. Not only has Stevie led by example, he has surprising athleticism for a guy as big as he is. He's more of a playmaker the way USC uses him. He said USC let's the D-line guys make plays not just funnel the plays to the linebackers. USC has gotten decent play from sophomore Rasheem Green and JC transfer Josh Fatu and converted linebacker Malik Dorton, battling a hip injury, who is 280 pounds now. They're missing talented sophomore Noah Jefferson (6-6, 315) and that hurts. The defense, save for four TD-allowing breakdown plays has performed well and it should do the same Friday. They play aggressively and hard. They must communicate better.
UZ: In a lot of ways, USC has dramatically underperformed against expectations this fall. What has been the cause? Is Clay Helton in over his head?
DW: Some would say the essential issue here is that USC has been overscheduled as much as it's underperformed, which it definitely has. It has clearly not been ready for prime time. But a case could surely be made that had USC played Utah's schedule, it would be 3-0 and no one would be taking about "Helton in over his head" yet. Sure, USC hasn't shown much against its two Power Five opponents and the Nos. 1 and 7 teams in the nation but contrast that with Utah's schedule against no Power Five and no ranked teams. USC surely could and should have played better against them and not suffered both the offensive and defensive breakdowns that have turned close games into routs. The offense has been described as a "gumbo" of elements from previous coaching regimes mixed in with what a couple of new coaches from Western Kentucky have brought into the mix but right now, it's something of an inconsistent mess without a personality or an identity. They started out power-running against Stanford, did well, committed too many false starts and got away from it. That's been a real problem. Staying with something. And now they haven't stayed with their veteran QB who has not played badly at all and as quarterback, has been their captain and team leader. And with the way social media is these days, and the off-the-field issues with an Osa Masina and Don Hill, for example, that have come up after a first eight months under Clay Helton, this is a critical week for his first-year tenure.
There's a new AD at USC, Lynn Swann, who did not hire Helton, a career assistant who was elevated for the "stability" he offered. But the kinds of losses he's suffered are not the "stability" a USC program can ever offer its fans, who are really unhappy despite mostly favorable feelings about Helton personally compared to the two head coaches he's succeeding. Which is why this week is so critical for his future. Win here and USC still has a good shot at winning the Pac-12 South, as it did under an interim Clay last fall. Lose and it's a long haul to get this team back in the mix against the rest of this schedule.
UZ: What is your prediction for the game, including the score?
DW: I've steadfastly refused in my career as a high school football coach and then sports reporter/columnist to name a score for any game. Just too many unknowns, as in this game. There's the weather, a first-game-starting quarterback, a first-year coach and staff under intense pressure, a team that didn't think it would be under this kind of scrutiny for underperforming as it has, and then there's the Utah factor. I know USC has made much of going to Rice-Eccles on a Blackout Friday night. I just think the impact will be what happened last year at the Coliseum to a third-ranked Utah team that gave up three scores on three catastrophic turnovers. That's where this game may turn. USC has been pretty good securing the football. But like so often happens, hasn't been in bad weather in a while. I look for a game like last time at Rice-Eccles -- decided on the final series. Hoping that the Pac-12 officials don't get involved like they did in that one, erasing what would have been a 100-yard Adoree' Jackson fumble return TD. Hoping that poor USC play-calling when USC had a chance to put that game away also doesn't decide this one. But since it's USC and this is still the Pac-12, you wouldn't want to bet against either of those things happening.