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USC vs. Colorado: How the Trojans and Buffaloes match up

USC vs. Colorado: How the Trojans and Buffaloes match up
Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold is coming off a 352-yard, three-touchdown passing performance against Arizona State last week. (Ryan Kang / Associated Press)

USC (2-3, 1-2 in the Pac-12) vs. No. 21 Colorado (4-1, 2-0), at the Coliseum. TV: Pac-12 Networks, 1 p.m.

Times staff writer Zach Helfand analyzes Saturday's game:

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Most intriguing story line: USC retains a glimmer of hope in the Pac-12 Conference South race. After this game, the Trojans could be solid favorites in their next three games, until they play at Washington on Nov. 12. USC Coach Clay Helton has said that his team has made big strides since a rocky start to the season. A win here confirms it. A loss could all but extinguish USC's division title hopes and would reopen questions about USC's ability to finish with a winning record.

USC pass offense vs. Colorado pass defense: No USC quarterback this millennium has started his first two games better than Sam Darnold. Darnold shredded Arizona State's pass defense last week, completing 23 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns. His scoring passes all went to a resurgent JuJu Smith-Schuster. Darnold hasn't had a pass intercepted since becoming the starter and has been sacked just once. But Arizona State owns the worst pass defense in the country; Colorado owns the ninth best, allowing about 150 yards per game. Two big, talented cornerbacks, Ahkello Witherspoon and Chidobe Awuzie, won't present the wide windows Darnold saw against the Sun Devils. This will be his stiffest test yet, and arguably the game's most entertaining matchup.  EDGE: USC.

USC run offense vs. Colorado run defense: USC has renewed a commitment to feed Justin Davis the ball, and Davis has rewarded the Trojans' confidence. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in back-to-back games. Last week, he had 129 yards in 14 carries with a touchdown. Colorado has experience: it returned 10 defensive starters. Eight starters are seniors. Up front, two 300-pounders, Josh Tupou and Jordan Carrell, control the line of scrimmage, but Colorado's rush defense is middling, giving up about 4.17 yards per carry. EDGE: USC.

Colorado pass offense vs. USC pass defense: Will Sefo Liufau, who has missed two games with an ankle injury, start at quarterback? Or will it be Steven Montez, who has been an impressive fill-in? They play a similar style. Liufau has six touchdowns and no interceptions. Montez has eight and two. Both complete passes at a high percentage. Both can move the chains running the ball. "No matter which one plays, we feel like we can use the same game plan," Helton said. Colorado's receivers, Helton said, "have been scary." Shay Fields (21 receptions, 460 yards, five touchdowns) and Devin Ross (26 receptions, 364 yards, five touchdowns) are deep threats. Fields has four catches of 50 yards or more this season. USC's secondary, ranked fourth in the conference, will have its hands full.  EDGE: Colorado.

Colorado run offense vs. USC run defense: Which defensive line will show up? USC held Arizona State's previously productive rushing attack to 75 yards in 30 carries. Overall, though, the Trojans are giving up 171 yards rushing per game. Tackle Rasheem Green emerged as a force last week — USC allowed just 2.1 yards per play when he was on the field. Colorado's Phillip Lindsay averages 4.8 yards per carry, though he hasn't run for 100 yards in a game this season. But a balanced approach has worked well enough. Colorado averages almost 219 yards rushing per game.  EDGE: USC.

Special teams: Colorado blew an early lead on the road against Michigan with shoddy special teams play. A Michigan punt return for a touchdown and a blocked punt, which set up another touchdown, turned the game. Colorado erred in punting to Michigan's Jabrill Peppers. Will it make the same mistake against Adoree' Jackson? USC kicker Matt Boermeester has put together a solid first season as the starter. He is eight for 11 on field-goal attempts, but he missed twice last week.  EDGE: USC.

Zach Helfand's pick: The Trojans' dominant win last weekend proved they are capable of harnessing their immense talent. The game represented a step forward, not an anomaly. At home, that talent will be enough to fend off a strong Colorado team.  USC 28, Colorado 27.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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