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USC-Utah: A look at how the teams match up

USC-Utah: A look at how the teams match up
The USC sideline celebrates after the Trojans defense forced Colorado to turn the ball over on Oct. 13. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

USC (4-2, 3-1) at Utah (4-2, 2-2)

Saturday, 5 p.m. PDT, Rice-Eccles Stadium. TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: 1110, 99.1.

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Marquee matchup

USC linebackers vs. Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss. Even if USC entered this game full-strength in its linebacker corps, the Trojans’ matchup against the tough-minded and efficient Utah running game would be the key to victory. But without “predator” outside linebacker Porter Gustin (out for the season because of a broken ankle) and possibly without middle linebacker Cameron Smith (a game-time decision because of a mild hamstring strain), it deserves even more of a pregame spotlight. True freshman Palaie Gaoteote stepped in for Smith against Colorado and spent a big part of the game in the Buffaloes’ backfield. He had nine tackles before exiting the game in the third quarter with concussion symptoms. Gaoteote has been medically cleared to play Saturday, which gives the Trojans hope of slowing down the Utes as they did Colorado.

Getting offensive

USC (381.3 ypg/25.7 ppg): JT Daniels proved once again that he has the maturity to recover quickly from mistakes against Colorado. He threw two interceptions in the first quarter and responded by tossing three touchdowns in the second. USC coach Clay Helton said this week he wants Daniels to do a better job of using his eyes to identify coverages but also to help disguise his intent with the ball. Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. was Daniels’ favorite target last week, breaking out with six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns. Pittman, Tyler Vaughns and Amon-ra St. Brown make up one of the best receiver groups in the Pac-12 if not the nation.

Utah (406.7 ypg/28.5 ppg): The Utes’ offense depends on Moss’ ability to get the most from every carry. “He’s a big back that knows how to get skinny,” Helton said. “He just finds ways to not get stood up in the hole. He’s always falling forward.”

Getting defensive

USC (361.8 ypg/25.2 ppg): The Trojans will play their first game this season without Gustin after playing 10 games without him last season. Gustin was on his way to an All-American type season as a pass rusher with seven sacks. USC will look to Christian Rector, who filled in for Gustin last season, to approach the task of replacing him. Hunter Echols and Kana’i Mauga should also see action at USC’s “predator” spot.

Utah (300 ypg/16 ppg): Utah safety Marquise Blair is a talented and experienced player and will try to bait Daniels into throws he shouldn’t make. The Utes pride themselves on stopping the run and are second nationally in that department.

Something special

USC kicker Michael Brown has made all three of his field-goal attempts since taking over for Chase McGrath, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the Texas game.

Of note

Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes have not won the Pac-12 South. A win over USC and a Colorado loss at Washington would put Utah in a three-way tie for first with a tiebreaker over the Trojans.

Injury report

Smith is a game-time decision. Cornerback Olaijah Griffin is out with a shoulder injury. Cornerback Jonathan Lockett will travel but is questionable to play.

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