Vegas Over/Under: Utah -3
The Utes and the Trojans are set to kick off PAC-12 play this Friday on a cold, rainy night in Salt Lake City. For the 3rd time in four years, USC enters this game fresh off some controversial storyline. In 2013, Lane Kiffin was fired the week before the Utah game. In 2015, Steve Sarkisian was fired the week before the Utah game. This year, USC enters the Utah game after benching its starting QB Max Browne, and will start a RS freshman Sam Darnold for the first time in his career. For whatever reason, Utah has drawn USC after disaster struck the Trojans. Utah is looking to have more luck than they had in the previous two games were USC had their backs to the wall.
The biggest story for the USC offense is the benching of JR Max Browne (QB) for FR Sam Darnold (QB). Browne, who had started against Alabama and Stanford, put up decent numbers, but did not meet the expectations of Coach Helton. So USC turns to a Darnold, who is more mobile than Browne, but has never started in a collegiate football game. Darnold will start against a Utah defense who is currently 2nd in the country in total sacks and 5th in the country in total interceptions. The environment at Rice-Eccles Stadium should be electric with the crowd throwing a blackout and the hype around the fact that USC is in town. In addition, Utah heavily recruited Darnold and Utah was Sam’s 2nd choice after USC. The Utah coaching staff has been watching him play football ever since he was a junior in high school. So there won’t be very many secrets in Darnold’s talents that the Utah coaching staff hasn’t already seen. Needless to say, Darnold will have to play very well in this game if USC wants to win. The Utah defense isn’t going to beat themselves, and the moment could become too big for the freshman.
Due to the quarterback woes, USC’s elite wide receivers have not been a huge factor so far this season. Juju Smith-Schuster (WR), who was considered by many as the best wide receiver in the nation, has less than 100 total yards receiving this year. Darreus Rogers (WR) and Deontay Burnett (WR) have combined for 250 yards receiving so far this season. All three of these wide receivers are extremely talented, and Utah’s secondary will have to play its best game of the season to contain them if Darnold is successful in getting them the football. I imagine Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley will be mixing up man and zone coverage as much as possible to delay Darnold’s decision making post-snap in order to take the pressure off the secondary.
The Trojan’s offensive line was hailed as possibly the best offensive line in the country before the season started by the national media. That honeymoon ended early with Alabama and Stanford dominating USC’s offensive line. Utah’s defensive line is equally talented to Alabama and Stanford and that, once again, does not bode well for the Trojans. With that said, USC’s offensive line is extremely talented, and Utah’s defensive line isn’t just going to walk into the game and dominate. Lowell Lotulelei (DT) and Hunter Dimick (DE) will need to play very well in order to put pressure on the freshman quarterback and to stop a talent running back in Justin Davis (3.8 YPC). The USC offensive line versus the Utah defensive line should be the best match-up in this game as nearly everyone on both lines will get a shot at the next level.
There are some significant story lines on the defensive side of the football for USC in this game. Specifically, Utah transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (DT) and Utah native Porter Gustin (DE) both start for the USC defense. Porter Gustin chose USC over Utah out of high school in Salem Hills, UT, which was hard to swallow for many Utah fans. Stevie T. transferred from the University of Utah after four years as a Ute. The Stevie T transfer is even more difficult to swallow as the Utes invested in Stevie for four years, and then he transferred to a divisional opponent in the PAC-12 South. The transfer has not sat well with some of the Utah coaches, players, and fans. The bad blood makes this game even more intriguing to see how the Utah natives perform against the Utah offense. What is even more mind-boggling is that a back-up defensive tackle was able to transfer and start at a recruiting powerhouse like USC. That goes to show the talent and depth of the Utah defensive line.
The USC defensive line is still loaded with individual talent, and the Utah offensive line will need to play its best game of the year in order to give Troy Williams (QB) time to throw the football and create running lanes for Zack Moss (RB). Stevie T. will be familiar with some of the Utah offensive lineman tendencies, but I don’t expect that to make much of a difference in the game. Troy Williams (QB) will also need to play his best game as a Ute in order to move the football against the USC defense. USC, who is fairly thin at the defensive line, will be down Noah Jefferson (DE) for this game. Utah’s offensive line should be able to have success against the USC defensive front if they play tough, smart, physical football.
The USC secondary is very talented. Adoree Jackson (CB), Iman Marshall (CB), and Marvell Tell (FS) will all be 1st or 2nd round draft picks in the next year or two. Also, the USC secondary plays very well as a unit. The pressure will be on Utah’s wide receivers to get open in time for Troy Williams to get them the football. This is honestly where I am the most nervous for Utah in this game. Interceptions could dominate this game for both teams. I expect fairly conservative play calling for Utah in the passing game with the occasional shot downfield.
The Utah and USC match-up over the last few years since Utah joined the PAC-12 has been a physical, hard-fought game. I don’t expect anything different this year. Utah will have success running the football, which will setup the passing game. Troy Williams will have to make plays on his feet due to the excellent USC secondary. The environment at Rice-Eccles stadium and the pressure from the Utah defense will rattle Sam Darnold early. Utah will start fast and USC will rally late in the game, but they will come up short. Clay Helton’s seat temperature will immediately go from Mojave desert to surface of the sun hot.
Utah 27 USC 24