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Game Matchups: Utah Defense vs. USC Offense

UteZone breaks down the position matchups between the USC offense and the Utah defense in tonight's Pac-12 opener for the Utes.

USC Offense

USC has struggled on offense this season, scoring 16 combined points against Alabama and Stanford. They did manage to put up 45 points on Utah State. Consistency and penalties have been a major problem for the Trojan offense as they can’t seem to get out of their own way at times. They actually had some success moving the ball against Stanford, but could not be consistent enough to produce points.

For USC, the problems on offense begin with an offensive line that has not played up to expectations, committing penalties and allowing far too much pressure on the quarterback. Right tackle Zach Banner in particular looks slow and heavy-footed at times, struggling both against speed to the outside and quickness to the inside. Penalties have also been an issue for Banner. Left tackle Chad Wheeler has been decent outside of penalties. Center Nico Falah has been consistent in his snaps and solid as a combo-blocker. He can struggle when left one-on-one as he is undersized at just 280 pounds. Right guard Viane Talamaivao has been inconsistent, though when he is playing well he is very good. Left guard Damien Mama can also be an excellent lineman when he is playing well, and has arguably been the most consistent lineman. Chris Brown will also play some at guard. Though the line struggled against Alabama, the run blocking has improved each week and they have been solid when actually running the football. The biggest issue the line has had is penalties, false start penalties in particular.

When USC does run the football, they have three capable backs to give the ball to. Justin Davis has explosive potential, though he has yet to find much room with a 12-yard run as his longest carry this season. Ronald Jones would be a lead back at a lot of schools, but he is splitting snaps at USC. He has been the most effective back through three games, gaining 5.1 yards per carry. Jones doesn’t have the raw explosiveness of Davis, but he can also be dangerous in the open field. The Trojans will also bring in Aca’Cedric Ware as a third back, though he did not get any carries against Stanford.

USC’s tight ends are an important part of the offense, primarily in the running game. Starter Taylor McNamara and second tight end Tyler Petite are both dealing with minor leg injuries. Though both are expected to play against Utah, their effectiveness as run blockers could be an issue. The running game relies on the tight ends blocking, especially on sweeps and other outside running plays. Petite has been solid in the passing game as well, catching 5 passes for 86 yards.

Consistency at receiver has been a problem for the Trojans, with dropped passes and poor routes the main issues. USC has also not been feeding the ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster, though with a new starting quarterback, that might change. Smith-Schuster is one of the better receivers in the country with size, speed, and outstanding hands. He has been playing disinterested at times and has made some curious decisions, such as against Stanford when he had a touchdown if he had tried to use both hands to catch the football. Darreus Rogers should be a much more productive receiver than he has been, with drops being his most glaring issue. Rogers has good size at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds and the speed to get open down the field. He is not as physical as his size would suggest. He leads the team with 13 catches for 153 yards, but he has had many more opportunities to slip through his fingers. Steven Mitchell is a solid slot receiver with the ability to make plays at any level, though USC uses him mainly underneath. Mitchell has 82 yards on 13 catches. Justin Davis is a capable receiver out of the backfield.

Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold will make his first career start at quarterback against Utah. He has played in every game this season, completing 14 of 22 passes for 136 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception, though he has mainly played when the outcome of the game was not in doubt. He has a strong arm and has showed some accuracy. He hasn’t shown an ability to progress through his reads and will ‘lock on’ to receivers and will force the ball into tight windows. His interception against Stanford—off a deflected pass—came on a forced throw into coverage. Darnold is a solid athlete but not a great runner. He can move around a bit and has the size at 225 pounds to run through defenders. Max Browne will be the backup. Browne had a rough start to the season, but his play has been solid, completing 63 percent of his passes for 474 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He is not a mobile quarterback by any stretch of the imagination, though he has a good arm and accuracy.

Utah Defense

Utah’s defense has been stout through three games, though they have not faced a team with talent close to what USC can put on the field. The Utes are Top-10 in the country in scoring defense (tied for 9th), pass efficiency defense (9th), sacks (2nd) and turnovers forced (tied for 7th).

Where the Utes need to improve is early in games. Teams are running for 4.9 yards per carry in the first quarter of ball games—gaining 123 yards on 25 carries—while netting just 2.9 yards per carry in the final three quarters. Against a struggling team like USC, Utah needs to shut them down early, potentially breaking the confidence of the offense.

Up front the Utes fared well in their first game without defensive end Kylie Fitts, holding San Jose State to 1.75 yards per carry and recording 10 quarterback sacks. Defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi played well at defensive end, as did Pasoni Tasini at tackle. The Utes could play Mokofisi more at end against USC, as his ability to hold up against the run will be important to stopping the outside running plays. End Pita Taumoepenu is playing the run better this season, in particular having a solid game against San Jose State, and leads the defensive line with 11 tackles to go along with 3 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks. He also leads the team with 2 forced fumbles. Hunter Dimick is off to a good start to his senior season after missing quite a bit of time last season due to injury. Dimick has 9 tackles and leads the team with 4 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. Lowell Lotulelei has played well as the focal point of opposing game plans, with 7 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and a sack. His ability to hold up against double-teams without losing ground is what makes the rest of the front effective.

Utah does need better consistency from the linebackers. Cody Barton and Sunia Tauteoli have played well, and have exceeded expectations, but they are missing far too many tackles. The missed assignments have dropped each week, now they need to finish the plays they are in position to make. Barton leads the team with 22 tackles, adding 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Tauteoli has made some big plays through three games, recording 21 tackles, a sack, and 2 interceptions. Kavika Luafatasaga has seen his play increase each week as he gets more comfortable in the system, and will see the field this week in some traditional three linebacker sets, as USC does utilize two tight end packages. Donovan Thompson saw some playing time at linebacker against San Jose State, though both of his tackles this season have been on kick coverage. Depth could be a problem for Utah at linebacker.

The secondary has been playing well early in the season and could receive a boost with the expected return of corner Dominique Hatfield from injury. Hatfield is Utah’s best playmaking corner, though Reginald Porter and Brian Allen have been excellent in his absence. Porter in particular is playing well, picking off passes in consecutive games after having no interceptions in his prior 24 career games. Porter might be Utah’s most reliable all-around corner as he is a solid tackler as well as cover corner. Allen has great size at 6-foot-3, which will provide better matchups against USC’s taller receivers. Depth behind the top three corners is an issue, as Utah does not have a reliable fourth corner. Nickel backs Justin Thomas and Boobie Hobbs have played well this season, though they will be tested this week by Steven Mitchell.

Free safety Marcus Williams is playing better than any safety in the country through the first quarter of the season. He leads the secondary with 16 tackles, has 2 interceptions, 4 passes defended, and has forced and recovered a fumble. His ability to play center field and his range to make plays on the sideline allows Utah’s corners to be a bit more aggressive, knowing they have help deep. Strong safety Chase Hansen hasn’t made any plays in the passing game, but he is playing the run well and developing into a good blitzer. Andre Godfrey is seeing time at strong safety, and will at times replace Hansen in passing situations.

Edge: Slight advantage to Utah

Special Teams

Utah’s special teams have been outstanding in three of the five units, shining when the kicking specialists are on the field. Utah needs better production out of the return games.

Boobie Hobbs has put up decent numbers as a punt returner, gaining 107 yards for the offense this season, but he has a bit of a reckless nature, fielding punts that should be left alone or trying to return punts that should be fair caught. His recklessness is not backed up by production, and losing a fumble on a punt that should have been fair caught is inexcusable. Outside of his 35-yard return against SUU, Hobbs is averaging a meager 6 yards per return.

Of all of Utah’s special teams units, kick return by far needs to most work. Utah’s primary issue is in blocking; too many coverage players are getting down field unimpeded. It’s difficult for any return man to make the first four defenders miss. Utah is averaging 13.2 yards per kick return, good enough for 128th nationally—out of 128 schools. At least Utah has been consistent, as every return has been between 12 and 15 yards. Granted, Utah has not had many chances with only 4 returns, but the blocking has been so poor that it is hard to believe more chances would yield better results.

The good news for Utah is that Mitch Wishnowsky has been outstanding at punter. He leads the country in punt average and net punting, both by fairly sizable amounts. He has a strong leg and has shown some ability to pin teams deep with 3 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. He also is able to get hang time with distance, with just 5 of his 14 punts being returned despite 9 punts of 50 or more yards. Andy Phillips has been consistent since the opener, when a nagging injury played a role in his lone missed field goal this season. Since that miss, he has made four consecutive field goals, including a 47-yard kick against BYU. Hayes Hicken has been consistent on kickoffs, with 8 touchbacks on 17 kicks.

Utah’s coverage teams are playing well, but they will need to be at the top of their game against USC. Utah is allowing just 14.6 yards per kick return and 4.2 yards per punt return. Donovan Thompson has been a standout on kick coverage while Casey Hughes highlights the punt coverage unit. Hughes has yet to make a tackle on punt coverage, but he has forced two punts to be fair caught and forced a fumble on a punt return against San Jose State that lead to a Utah field goal.

USC’s special teams is the Adoree’ Jackson show. The dynamic playmaker is a threat on kick and punt returns, and has a 77-yard punt return for a touchdown this season. He is averaging 24.8 yards on kick returns, and has fielded just 2 punts as teams try to kick away from him. If he gets the ball in his hands, he is a big play waiting to happen. Jackson has had big games against Utah in the past, including a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown the last time the teams met in Salt Lake City.

Kicker Matt Boermeester is a solid kicker, connecting on 4 of his 5 attempts this season, with a pair of 47-yard field goals as his longest kicks. He also handles kickoffs, with 9 touchbacks on 14 kicks. Punter Chris Tibey has had to deal with punting on numerous short fields, averaging 39.4 yards on 17 punts, with 6 punts landing inside the 20-yard line. He doesn’t have the strongest leg but gets good hang time on his punts and is a solid directional punter.

Short fields are part of the reason why USC has allowed just 1.4 yards per punt return, though the coverage unit does a good job of getting downfield, staying in their lanes, and wrapping up the return man. Kick coverage could be better, as they are allowing 22.2 yards per return.

Edge: Even

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