USC at Colorado: Keys to a win that would get the Trojans back on track

USC receiver Drake London, front, celebrates his touchdown with teammates
USC receiver Drake London, front, celebrates his touchdown with teammates Tahj Washington, left, Liam Jimmons, right, and Jude Wolfe on Sept. 18 in Pullman, Wash.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

The first month of the season was supposed to be the easy part. But after four weeks, USC (2-2) finds itself reeling, stuck at .500, in desperate need of a bounce-back performance in Colorado (1-3). The Buffaloes, who nearly won the Pac-12 South last season, might be one of the few Pac-12 teams playing worse than USC right now. The Trojans’ last road trip seemed to right the ship — albeit briefly. Could the Rocky Mountains offer a similar salvo? The teams in desperate need of a win face off at 11 a.m. at Folsom Field in a game being broadcast on Pac-12 Networks. USC is favored by 7 ½ points.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Ryan Kartje looks at the game’s matchups and story lines:


Run game plans

Todd Orlando is apparently a glutton for punishment.

After watching his defense get trampled by Oregon State for 322 yards on the ground last week, the USC defensive coordinator couldn’t help but blame himself. He watched the performance, which he called “heart-wrenching,” over and over on film.


“I’ve beat myself up about 450 times going through it,” Orlando said, later reiterating that “those things nag at you.”

Texas A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal pursues Colorado running back Jarek Broussard
Texas A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal (8) pursues Colorado running back Jarek Broussard (23) Sept. 11 in Denver.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

The Trojans’ defense will have a chance at redemption this week against a much more one-sided unit. Colorado has been one of the more run-heavy offenses in the Pac-12, with last year’s Pac-12 offensive player of the year Jarek Broussard still in the backfield. But Broussard hasn’t looked like himself through four games, averaging just 4.2 yards per carry and 15 fewer rushes per game than 2020.

That decreased deficiency may have something to do with the fact that Colorado poses no threat in the pass game, allowing defenses to sell out on Broussard.

Whatever the advantage, Orlando will take it. Right now, USC is allowing 4.84 yards per carry to opposing backs, good for 108th in the country.



Hardly airborne

Through four games, freshman quarterback Brendon Lewis hasn’t exactly been able to get Colorado off the ground. In fact, there’s a case to be made that no offense in college football has been worse through the air than the Buffaloes.

With USC presumably looking for a big-name coach, the assumption was that Donte Williams had to perform a miracle to remove the interim label from his job description.

Colorado is currently averaging 85 passing yards per game, the third-lowest rate in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The only two teams with fewer yards through the air are Army and Navy, whose run-heavy and option offenses average 4.5 and 11.3 pass attempts per game, respectively.

Colorado has been a bit less efficient, by comparison. The Buffaloes are averaging just 4.2 yards per attempt through the air, slightly less than Broussard’s per-carry average on the ground.


One-man show

Even as USC’s offense has struggled to establish itself consistently, no receiver in college football has been more dominant through the season’s first month than Drake London. London leads the country in receiving yards (540). He’s tied for the lead in receptions (39). And he’s done it all while being constantly mugged or double-teamed by defenders hell-bent on shutting him down.


USC wide receiver Drake London gets past San Jose State cornerback Mikale Greer
USC wide receiver Drake London gets past San Jose State cornerback Mikale Greer on Sept. 4.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)

But sooner rather than later, USC is going to have to find a consistent secondary option.

Tahj Washington looked like that guy through camp and in flashes over the first four games, but against Oregon State, he was responsible for multiple drops. USC receivers coach Keary Colbert said he had Washington watch a highlight package of top NFL wideouts dropping passes, in order to keep his confidence up.

“He’s past it,” Colbert said.

The problem still stands for USC, though, the most promising option may be sophomore Gary Bryant Jr., who has touchdowns in each of his last two games. Freshman tight end Michael Trigg has also started to find his stride and could emerge down the stretch.


Injuries and more

Cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart sat out Tuesday and Wednesday practices this week, but USC interim coach Donte Williams said he expects the starter to suit up on Saturday.

USC linebacker Drake Jackson is pushing to consistently rack up sacks and cash in on his money year, following the guidance of his late grandmother.


The opportunities offered to freshman Korey Foreman this week should be telling where USC’s coaching staff stands with the top recruit. Defensive line coach Vic So’oto made clear that Foreman still has a lot to prove, explaining that his youth had more to do with his limited snaps than nagging injuries.

Freshman Maximus Gibbs, who signed with USC as a 400-pound interior offensive lineman, took some snaps at nose tackle this week in an effort to give the Trojans a beefier look up front. It’s unclear whether Gibbs will see the field, but if USC finds itself in a dire place against the run once again, a big body in the middle couldn’t hurt, could it?