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Utah and USC: A Pac-12 South Showdown

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Breaking down some strengths and weaknesses that USC and Utah have, and how each team can exploit them.

Nate Orchard has been a revelation for the Utes
Nate Orchard has been a revelation for the Utes
Steve Dykes

USC and Utah square off in a battle of ranked teams in the Pac-12 South. So far, the Trojans have utilized the play of Javorius "Buck" Allen to supplement Cody Kessler's ability in the passing game. Utah has focused on the other side of the ball, with a defense that averages 5.5 sacks per game led by defensive end Nate Orchard and a stout front seven that has been aggressive in attacking offenses. This is a pivotal game in the Pac-12 South race and could decide a victor in this division.

Utah's defense has come on like an RKO, out of nowhere, and is incredibly aggressive in dealing with opposing passing attacks. As analyzed more thoroughly by Ian Boyd, Utah relies on a bit of Pat Narduzzi's defense at Michigan State, using a six-man zone blitz. For the most part, the Utes use stunts from their defensive lineman to protect their linebackers and nickelback from offensive lineman trying to make their way to the second level. Take this example from the Michigan game, where Utah sends their d-line on a slant to the playside. The linemen attack the outside shoulder of their blockers, making it impossible to get a reach block on them for a potential mesh block between two of the offensive lineman. Jared Norris, one of the standouts on the Utes defense, can swoop in unblocked and make a tackle for no gain.

The Utah defense also uses safer zone coverages, Cover 2 and Cover 3 in this case, in order to take away the deep routes and to play it safe while blitzing. When the Utes go to a cover 3, it's usually to allow their free safety to play up as a run stopper. It also allows the linebackers to play in the box. Even when only rushing four, dropping the linebackers into zones can take away some of the crossing and safety valve routes for long enough for the defensive line to get to the quarterback. Take this play near the beginning of the game against Oregon State. Utah moves their safety up into the box for run support, but they drop four into underneath coverage under the cover 3 while rushing four.

UtahFront1

UtahFront2

The Utah defensive line pushes Sean Mannion in, and essentially forces a throw to a receiver on a short sit route, which is easily read and the pass is picked off.

UtahFront3

UtahFront4

The way that USC can deal with this is two-fold. The Trojans have formidable rushing and passing attacks and play action is a way to freeze the defense and to put the zones out of position. Combined with short routes, a staple in any good no-huddle offense, the Trojans can exploit the cover 3 played by the Utes. This is how Washington State made their comeback, and should be a blueprint for any team trying to attack the Utah defense. The alternative to attacking a cover 3 is by running two vertical routes up the seams, which puts the safety covering the middle deep zone in a bind.

On to USC, where defensively they got exploited by a Boston College team that ran any number of option plays that have been detailed here. The only issue with this is that Kyle Whittingham has announced Travis Wilson as the starter for the week over the running quarterback, Kendal Thompson. With the recent emergence of running back Devontae Booker, the Utes could still have great success in the running game. USC actually hasn't allowed too many yards on the ground since the Boston College game, despite playing a couple of teams who have the ability to run the ball with Arizona and Arizona State having solid running backs in Nick Wilson, Terris Jones-Grigsby and DJ Foster.In line with the Boston College strategy, the Utes may want to employ a lot of misdirection, and possibly they could use Thompson in a role similar to Luke Rubenzer at Cal. Wilson looks like he will take the lion's share of the reps Saturday, and Booker will help to take some of the pressure off.

The inconsistency of Travis Wilson at maintaining his quarterback job, whether due to injury or otherwise, is something that USC can take advantage of. Despite the absence of Josh Shaw and an oft harped on lack of depth, USC has a playmaker in Su'a Cravens that can attack the Ute passing game. The rest of the SC defense isn't too shabby either. When they make interceptions, like this one against Colorado, it falls on their defensive secondary covering ground. On this play, Sefo Liufau tries to hit the hole between the safety and the corner in a cover 2 defense. His placement is solid, but safety Gerald Bowman covers a ton of ground on the release of the ball and makes the hit that gives Kevon Seymour the interception. Due to Travis Wilson's uncertainty, he may float a few more passes than he should and the USC defense won't let him get away with it.

For the most part, this is an even matchup. For Utah, the worry has to be offensive effectiveness after a lackluster showing for most of the Oregon State game. For USC, they need to give Cody Kessler time to find Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith in space while hold Devontae Booker down, which is going to be a challenge. Either way, it is shaping up to be a fantastic game in Salt Lake City.