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USC Sports

USC vs. Utah: How they match up

Sam Darnold
USC quarterback Sam Darnold gets set to throw a pass against Utah State during a game on Sept. 10.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

USC (1-2) vs. No. 24 Utah (3-0), at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City. TV: FS1, 6 p.m.

Most intriguing story line: USC’s schedule has been brutal, and its record is indicative. Clay Helton has a record of 1-4 since becoming full-time head coach, his lone win against Utah State. If Helton and USC are to make a stand, this is the game. They have a track record: last season, after losing three of four and firing Steve Sarkisian, USC played No. 3 Utah and won convincingly, 42-24.

USC pass offense vs. Utah pass defense: Max Browne is out as USC’s quarterback. Sam Darnold is in. Darnold has a big arm and command of the offense. The big question will be whether he can jump-start JuJu Smith-Schuster and the rest of USC’s receiving corps, which is averaging just 5.6 yards per pass, which is among the nation’s worst averages. Adoree’ Jackson playing more on offense could also provide a spark. Darnold, in limited minutes the first three games, hasn’t been sacked. Utah had 10 sacks against San Jose State last week, an astounding statistic no matter the opponent. Kylie Fitts was one of the best defensive ends in the conference before he was injured. No matter, Pita Taumoepenu and Hunter Dimick still give the Utes one of the Pac-12’s better sets of bookends. EDGE: Utah.

USC run offense vs. Utah run defense: USC is 111th in rushing offense and has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Utah, led by tackle Lowell Lotulelei,  gives up just 3.5 yards per rush. The good news for USC is the Trojans’ offense, particularly running back Justin Davis, showed life against Stanford. The bad news: USC still has just two rushes of 20 yards or more, and hasn’t had a 100-yard rusher in a game. USC’s offense relies on running the ball to set up big passes, which is a big reason why USC hasn’t scored much this season.  EDGE: Utah.

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Utah pass offense vs. USC pass defense: Utah quarterback Troy Williams attended Harbor City Narbonne High and grew up a USC fan. But USC never recruited him. He is still untested. Against Brigham Young, the only test Utah has seen so far, he looked shaky. He had three passes intercepted, with one touchdown. His favorite target is Tim Patrick, who averages 20 yards per reception and has all four of Utah’s receiving touchdowns. Expect Patrick to see blanket coverage from USC’s Jackson. EDGE: USC.

Utah run offense vs. USC run defense: Devontae Booker’s departure wrenched a big hole in Utah’s offense. Coach Kyle Whittingham has so far plugged it with a running-back-by-committee approach. Four running backs have taken 20 carries or more. None has exceeded 30. Troy McCormick has emerged as a possible favorite. He is averaging 6.1 yards per carry, and Zack Moss has been explosive, at 6.4 yards per touch. Tackle J.J. Dielman and guard Isaac Asiata are two of the more talented road-grading blockers USC will see. USC did a halfway decent job against Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey last week. He rushed for 172 yards in 31 carries — pedestrian by his lofty standards. This week won’t be a cakewalk, but it’s not McCaffrey. EDGE: USC.

Special teams: The Pac-12 Conference’s best punting team (Utah) meets the conference’s best return team (USC). Expect punter Mitch Wishnowsky to keep the ball far from Jackson. USC kicker Matt Boermeester has performed capably. Utah’s Andy Phillips has a longer track record. Rain in the forecast could be a factor. Trojans special teams coach John Baxter has prepared for it.  EDGE: USC.

Zach Helfand’s pick: USC desperately needs a win. If the Trojans play with desperation, they have enough talent to overcome the Utes’ stout defense. Darnold isn’t likely to provide a significant upgrade over Max Browne, but that hasn’t been the issue. If USC cleans up its mistakes defensively and avoids mindless penalties on offense, it will sneak away with a victory.  USC 27, Utah 24.

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