Breaking down the on-field matchups for USC (4-3, 3-1) and Colorado (3-4, 1-3) for the game Friday at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo., at 6 p.m. PDT. (TV: ESPN2, Radio: 790.)
USC cornerback Olaijah Griffin vs. Colorado receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. Shenault had the makings of a first-round NFL draft pick before injuries slowed him down this season. But the top Colorado wideout appears to be healthy again, just as USC’s top corner also returns with a clean bill of health. After dealing with back issues, Griffin made his eagerness to return known, especially with a huge test like Shenault on tap. This should be one of the better cornerback-receiver battles in the conference this season.
USC (431.6 ypg, 30.7 ppg): With its three top running backs sidelined, USC has no choice but to turn to a freshman sprinter in its backfield. How much of a workload Kenan Christon can handle is still uncertain, but his 12.9 yards per carry in his debut last week is certainly encouraging. USC will aim to make it as easy as possible on Christon and the run game, which means a heavy emphasis on Kedon Slovis and the passing attack. Slovis wasn’t much to behold against a terrible Arizona secondary, but in Colorado, he’ll have an even worse pass defense to feast on. It’s a great opportunity for him to change the narrative on his and USC’s road woes. He’ll need to make more plays than he did a week ago.
Colorado (407.7 ypg, 26.6 ppg): As Colorado lost its last three games, its struggling offense has largely been to blame. Quarterback Steven Montez, whose potential has largely been unfulfilled over the last few seasons, has had a miserable time the last two games, throwing for just 272 yards, while having seven passes intercepted. Colorado’s run game has picked up a bit of the slack, but not enough to make a difference. Its rushing offense ranks in the middle of the Pac-12, with 154 yards per game.
USC (416.4 ypg, 24 ppg): Its beat-up defense nearly pitched a shutout last week against a thriving Arizona offense, but can USC repeat that performance on the road? That’ll be a tall task with four of its key defensive contributors sidelined, especially when it comes to creating pressure. Coaches are confident that reserve defensive ends Caleb Tremblay and Connor Murphy, along with linebacker Hunter Echols, will be able to make Colorado’s quarterback uncomfortable. But the Buffaloes’ offensive line has been one of the Pac-12’s better units. USC will get reinforcements in the secondary, with cornerbacks Griffin and Greg Johnson returning. Before both sat out last week, USC hadn’t allowed more than 210 passing yards in any of the previous three weeks.
Colorado (482.4 ypg, 34.9 ppg): After USC faced one of the nation’s worst pass defenses a week ago, an even worse secondary is on tap in Boulder. Only one team in the Football Bowl Subdivision (New Mexico) has allowed more passing yards per game than Colorado (316). That bodes well for Slovis and Co., even after a less-than-stellar showing last Saturday. To combat that aerial attack, Colorado will likely dial up the pressure. But an aggressive approach against the pass could also backfire, as the Buffaloes have allowed more rushing yards per carry (4.87) than any other Pac-12 team.
Only nine kickers nationally have gone without a missed kick this season. Through seven weeks, USC’s Chase McGrath is one of them, with eight field goals in eight tries. The Pac-12 has three kickers who have been perfect, but Colorado’s James Stefanou is not on that list. He’s made three more field goals than McGrath, but has missed three of 14 attempts.
USC has never lost to Colorado, and over 13 meetings, it’s never been all that close, either. The Trojans’ average margin of victory over the Buffaloes is 20.1 points.
USC carries a disconcertingly long list of injured players into Friday night’s game: Defensive ends Drake Jackson (ankle) and Christian Rector (ankle), safety Talanoa Hufanga (shoulder), linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV (ankle), and running backs Markese Stepp (ankle) and Stephen Carr (hamstring) will all miss the game.