After four years as the punishing lead back in Utah’s physical rushing attack, Zack Moss is no stranger to inflicting pain on Pac-12 defenses. And when it comes to USC, which just suffered its first loss of the season last Saturday, Moss made it clear this week that he smells blood in the water.
“It’s a good little wound for those guys,” Moss said of USC’s loss to Brigham Young. “We’re just going to go ahead and add to that.”
If USC has any chance of stopping the bleeding Friday against No. 10 Utah, it starts with slowing down Moss -- a tall task no team has really managed to do this season or last. Over his past 15 games, Moss has been held under four yards per carry only once and held without a touchdown only once -- with USC last season the only team able to accomplish the latter.
“The guy is incredible,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “He’s going to play on Sundays.”
But as the Trojans prepare to face perhaps the best running back on their schedule, their defense finds itself at an early turning point. In each of its first three games, USC has been able to get into the backfield, but routinely unable to finish.
It’s a difficult issue to handle for a defense predicated on being aggressive. But that lack of discipline could spell doom for USC against a running back like Moss, who’s far more capable of exploiting the Trojans’ questionable tackling than the three primary running backs they’ve faced thus far.
“He’s a great runner, a great downhill guy,” sophomore linebacker Palaie Gaoteote said. “He can run pretty much anywhere, outside, inside, between the tackles. He can do everything. This week, we have a heavy tackle emphasis.”
Perhaps no player is more indicative of those issues than Gaoteote, whose instinctive aggressiveness has led to him overpursuing at times this season. Prior to USC’s trip to BYU, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast noted that Gaoteote was used to “cutting it loose a bit more” than he’d been allowed as a weakside linebacker this season.
“That’s just kind of who he is a little bit,” Pendergast said. “He’s very quick, instinctive to key and diagnose. He missed some tackles in space that I’d like for him to make.”
On Saturday, Gaoteote had his best performance of the season, finishing with a season-high nine tackles. But in turn, the rest of USC’s defense struggled with keeping its discipline, as BYU routinely escaped tackles in the backfield.
“It’s a fundamental issue,” defensive end Christian Rector said. “We have to work on that, tackling in space, gang-tackling, pursuit to the ball -- all of it is important.”
All of it may also be helped with Rector’s return to the defensive line. The senior captain missed Saturday’s defeat with an ankle injury and was “sorely missed,” according to Pendergast.
But Rector, who said his ankle is “more or less” 100%, said he expects to play Friday night, regardless.
Adding Rector won’t be able to iron out all of USC’s tackling woes, though. Inside linebacker John Houston said that some defensive players had issues last week “not knowing their keys or recognizing formations.” Freshman defensive end Drake Jackson added that USC’s aggressive approach on defense was “kind of working against us, in a way.”
Whether the Trojans can solve those issues on a short week remains to be seen. But with Moss looming and a brutal schedule awaiting after, the next few games could prove plenty painful, if they can’t find a way.
Cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart (unspecified) and nickel back Greg Johnson (concussion) sat out practice Tuesday. Wideout Amon-ra St. Brown also sat out practice, but does not have a diagnosed injury.