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

Utah running back Zack Moss is averaging nearly seven yards per carry this season.
Utah running back Zack Moss is averaging nearly seven yards per carry this season.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

USC (2-1, 1-0) vs. No. 10 UTAH (3-0, 0-0)

Friday, 6 p.m., Coliseum. TV: FS1. Radio: 790.

Marquee matchup

USC’s linebackers vs. Utah running back Zack Moss. A defense struggling to tackle in space suddenly finds itself faced with the task of stopping the most complete running back in the Pac-12. Those are hardly ideal circumstances for Clancy Pendergast’s defense, which has looked stout in the middle, but has been exposed on the perimeter. Moss, who is averaging nearly seven yards per carry this season, will happily take whatever USC gives him. If Moss is able to establish a consistent run game, Utah should dominate time of possession, minimizing opportunities for USC’s offense to hang around. Stopping Moss is the Trojans’ top priority, but to have any such chance, it’ll require strong performances from linebackers John Houston and Palaie Gaoteote.

Getting offensive

USC (463 ypg, 34.3 ppg): Last Saturday, Kedon Slovis looked far less like the savior of USC’s football team than he did an inexperienced freshman in his first road game. With less ideal circumstances, Slovis made a few back-breaking errors that USC couldn’t come back from. Against a dominant Utah defensive front, he’s likely to be under even more duress. A home crowd could help, but USC may try to alleviate pressure on Slovis by leaning on the ground game early. The Trojans managed only 3.8 yards per carry a week ago, and they’ll need to be better to have any chance of keeping drives alive in this one. That starts up front, where a bounce-back effort from the offensive line is critical. A more physical game could mean an increased role for redshirt freshman running back Markese Stepp, who gave the offense spark when Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr were struggling.


Utah (439 ypg, 32 ppg): The Utes’ offense runs through Moss, but it’s when quarterback Tyler Huntley is at his best that Utah has true juggernaut potential. So far this season, Huntley has been especially sharp, completing nearly 78% of his passes without an interception. His ability to scramble could give USC fits, a week after another dual threat (Brigham Young’s Zach Wilson) had his way with the defense. Pressuring Huntley could be USC’s best chance at slowing down Utah’s physical, ball-control attack. But that’s no easy feat, either, considering just how good Utah is up front. The Utes have yet to allow a sack this season.

USC special teams coach John Baxter isn’t completely pleased with what he’s seen, but he’s not about dwell on the unit’s back-breaking errors.

Getting defensive

USC (409 ypg, 24.3 ppg): The return of senior defensive end Christian Rector, who missed last week’s loss, should help USC’s efforts on the edge, but it won’t solve all of the defense’s issues. The Trojans have been prone to lapses in discipline through three games, and this week, they face an offense built to make teams pay for such mistakes. Producing a pass rush hasn’t been a problem — USC ranks second in the Pac-12 in sacks (9) — but they’ve left more than a few on the table. If USC can convert those opportunities and keep Huntley stationed in the pocket, stopping the Utes becomes much more doable.

Utah (239 ypg, 9.7 ppg): Suffocating seems the most appropriate adjective to describe Utah’s defensive effort so far this season. Utah has given up only 65 rushing yards per game. It hasn’t been much more vulnerable through the air, either. Through three games, the Utes have yielded one passing touchdown compared to four interceptions, while holding opposing quarterbacks to a completion rate under 60%. Senior defensive end Bradlee Anae is one of the Pac-12’s best pass rushers, and if he and the rest of the Utes front can make Slovis uncomfortable, it could be a long night for USC’s offense.

Something special

Junior kicker Chase McGrath has made each of his four field-goal tries and 13 extra-point attempts this season. Last week, that included a career-long 52-yarder, which sent the game to overtime. So will he keep up that precision? In three seasons at USC, McGrath has gone four games without a missed field goal or PAT once.

Of note

It has been more than 100 years since Utah beat USC in Los Angeles. In that 1916 game, played at Fiesta Park, 6,000 spectators watched as Utah beat USC 27-12. The Utes, who were called the Crimsonites then, have lost their last seven trips to L.A.

Injury report

Rector said earlier in the week that he expects to play, in spite of his injured ankle. But Helton said he would meet with Rector before deciding on his status for Friday. … Redshirt freshman cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart is “questionable at best” as he remains in the concussion protocol. If Taylor-Stuart is out, freshman Chris Steele will start at outside corner. … USC will get back two other cornerbacks from injury, including starting nickel cornerback Greg Johnson, who was cleared from the concussion protocol this week. Freshman Max Williams (knee) will make his season debut and could contribute in a rotational role.