USC vs. Utah matchups: Will Trojans’ receivers be too tough to cover?
MATCHUPS: No. 20 USC (2-0) at Utah (0-0)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Rice-Eccles Stadium.
TV: ESPN. Radio: 790
USC receivers vs. Utah secondary. All five of Utah’s departed defensive backs landed in NFL camps this fall, and their collective exits left the Utes with a gaping hole of inexperience where a secondary should be. Then two weeks ago, Bronson Boyd, the most experienced cornerback on the roster, announced he was entering the transfer portal. The Utes will replace him with Clark Phillips, a vaunted freshman from La Habra High, who’ll be thrown right into the fire against Amon-ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. In the slot, Drake London should continue to be a serious matchup problem, forcing Utah to drop extra players into coverage. Count on USC to test Utah through the air early and often.
USC (527 ypg, 31 ppg): Don’t let the big numbers fool you. USC’s offense has yet to operate anywhere near its full potential. Kedon Slovis is averaging 353 passing yards per game, way up from last season, but still hasn’t looked like his best self. That could change this week as Utah breaks in a new secondary. USC will do what it can to establish the run, too, but its work in crucial short-yardage and goal-to-go situations has been dismal. The Trojans rank ninth in the Pac-12 in third-down conversion rate (37.5%), and have been even worse than that in third-and-short situations.
Utah (429 ypg, 32.3 ppg in 2019): Utah will finally have to acknowledge who won its quarterback derby between South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley, Cameron Rising and Drew Lisk. Whoever it is, they’ll have an experienced offensive line, with four returning starters, in front of him. Running backs Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore will take over for Zack Moss, last year’s top back in the conference. Brumfield and Wilmore each averaged at least 1.5 fewer yards per carry than Moss last season. Utah does have a dynamic big-play threat in receiver and returner Britain Covey.
Utah’s reputation for stopping the run should provide a test for a USC squad that has struggled to get rushing yards on third and fourth downs.
USC (418 ypg, 28.5 ppg): Already one of the worst run defenses in the nation through two weeks (208 yards per game, 101st overall), USC will be down a starting linebacker (Palaie Gaoteote) as it prepares to face a Utah team that perennially boasts one of the Pac-12’s top rushing attacks. Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu has been a star through two games, and he’ll be the crux of USC’s plans against the run. On the edge, Drake Jackson will be crucial in creating pressure on the quarterback.
Utah (269.2 ypg, 15 ppg in 2019): The best defense in the Pac-12 last season must replace nine starters. That’s no easy feat for any team, let alone one still playing catch-up because of coronavirus-related cancellations. Utah does return its leading tackler, linebacker Devin Lloyd, as well as defensive end Mike Tafua, who had 3½ sacks last season.
Linebacker has been a major cause for concern on USC’s defense, with injuries robbing an already unproven position of depth in the offseason.
Ben Griffiths has punted just six times in two games this season, averaging nearly 47 yards a kick to rank eighth in the nation.
Utah is opening this season later than any other Power Five program, after its first two attempts at openers were canceled because of the coronavirus. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has never lost a season opener at home in 11 tries. USC hasn’t won in Salt Lake City since 2012, the Utes’ first season in the Pac-12.
USC linebacker Palaie Gaoteote remains in the concussion protocol and is “doubtful” for the game. … Center Brett Neilon, who sat out last week with an ankle injury, is “a possibility” to return, coach Clay Helton said Thursday. … Defensive tackles Brandon Pili (finger) and Caleb Tremblay (stingers) are both game-time decisions.
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