Utah has a huge matchup this weekend against the USC Trojans, a matchup that will feature two top-20 teams. In order to get to know the Trojans a little bit better, we had a chat with Conquest Chronicles writer Evan Budrovich.
Block U - Cody Kessler isn't your typical ‘big name' USC QB, what is the perception of Kessler from Trojans fans?
Conquest Chronicles - In the eyes of the USC faithful, Kessler is a solid pocket passer that can really sling the football across the field. He will not blow you away with arm strength or mobility, but Kessler just seems to find ways to make the smart play, especially when his team needs a third-down conversion or red zone score.
Block U - Talk a bit about the offensive line for the Trojans. There is some youth along that line, how do you think they can hold up against an aggressive pass rush?
Conquest Chronicles - That's the one area of concern for this offense. The combination of Viane Talamaiavo and Toa Lobendahn, two freshmen that have stepped up quite well on the first-team line, who will need to be on point this week. USC has limited the sacks against Kessler, mostly due to his ability to get the ball out quickly, and if Utah decides to play press coverage the Trojans' must be on their game. The one position that worries me is at right tackle, where the combination of Zach Banner (the 6-foot-9 monster) and Andrey Walker could be beaten by speed rushers. If the Trojans can hold fort on the edges, USC will have a decent pass protection.
Block U - Looking over the conference rankings, Utah and USC are very close in almost every category, the one area where it seems USC doesn't quite match up is in special teams. How are the Trojans on special teams?
Conquest Chronicles - Plain and simply put, a work in progress. Andre Heidari, who has been on point from 50 yards or deeper, remains sidelined by a groin injury opening the door for backup Alex Wood. While Wood has been great kicking extra points and booting away kickoffs, the young kicker has yet to attempt a field goal in his career. Something tells me the swirling winds of Salt Lake City might make USC reconsider any long field goal attempts. In terms of punting, the Trojans' are looking for better consistency from Kris Albarado. The cover units are not particularly special, which is shocking given how effective they were last season, and the overall reputation of this unit has been thrown under the rug as mediocre. The Trojans' do a fine job on kick returns, mostly fueled by electric weapons Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith, but have lacked the opportunity to really change a game. This will be Utah's biggest advantage on Saturday night, and hopefully USC can overcome this gaping weakness. This unit really scares me, but I've been proven wrong before.
Block U - What position group, on both sides of the ball, would be USC's main weakness that Utah may exploit, and where would you attack USC?
Conquest Chronicles - I would attack USC through the air in one-on-one situations to the outside and I would especially test the edge rushers in read-option football. From what we can tell the Utes struggle in this department, but I think the dual-threat ability of either quarterback will compensate for this. The illusion of running will keep the Trojan linebackers on edge and limit their ability to close the gap in the running game.
Block U - Obviously, the performance against Boston College really stands out, what happened there, and is there anything Utah can take from that?
Conquest Chronicles - Kinda building off the last answer, but USC does struggle with quarterbacks that can make things happen with their legs. Just keep in mind, however, that after allowing 452 yards on the ground against BC, the Trojans' have allowed just 338 yards on the ground in the four games since. Utah will need to be persistent to run the ball against USC, but an added mix of read-option carries could throw off this free-flowing front seven.
Block U - Where is USC in bouncing back from sanctions, is their depth still a big concern at this point?
Conquest Chronicles - The biggest concern is not really highlighted at one position, but rests solely in how the coaching staff adjusts workloads for respected players. One guy USC wants rested is Adoree' Jackson, the Trojans' top cover corner even at his tender experience as a true freshman. But to answer your question, I would argue the defensive line is the one position USC can least afford to suffer major fatigue or the bodies replacing them will not do enough to slow down this running game.
Block U - Now that Sark is on campus again, are the fans warming up to him, and is there any concern that ‘Seven Win Sark,' may be the coach that is patrolling the sidelines?
Conquest Chronicles - You really should of asked me that last week because that was the talk of the fans, boosters and skeptics across Los Angeles. Sure concern still exists over whether USC can make it to the Pac-12 Championship, but right now fans also understand (but may not agree with the fact) some patience is necessary for Coach Sarkisian.
Block U - Now that Utah is 5-1, 2-1 in the Pac-12, do the Trojans see this as a bigger test than a few months ago, coming into Rice-Eccles Stadium?
Conquest Chronicles - The Trojans understand how big this game is, and I would expect these players to treat the business trip much like Arizona. That team was focused, determined and took away what UofA wanted to do best, utilize its team speed. The challenge is slightly different this week, but the Trojans' (at least under Sark) have not struggled to get up for a big game. Thanks to your recent winning ways, this has become a huge game in the Pac-12 South Standings.
Block U - If Utah shuts down USC's rushing attack, which has been very good, especially against Arizona, is Kessler good enough to win the game on his own?
Conquest Chronicles - Yes and No. Kessler can put the team in position to win a game, but I don't see this offense (not necessarily this quarterback) not being able to bring a team back from a two-or-three touchdown hole. Kessler can make all the throws and if the Trojans push the ball downfield, they can at least somewhat buffer the loss of a running game. But things would get very dire in the meantime if USC can't run.
Block U - How much longer do you think it will take for USC to get back to being the USC that we all know - or are those days past altogether with the resurgence of UCLA, Oregon, ASU, and the rest of the teams in the Pac-12?
Conquest Chronicles - Ummm...This one is tough. The Trojans' of past memories would not lose games on the road to Boston College, so that needs to change. Adding more scholarship players the next two years will help, but the focus level that we see in certain games must remain constant over a full season if USC wants to be considered elite.
Block U - Has USC felt the loss of Marqise Lee this season, or has Nelson Agholor stepped in for him nicely?
Conquest Chronicles - Nelson Agholor has been great. The rest of the wideouts have struggled to stay healthy and make an impact outside of JuJu Smith, who even himself has been on and off this season. These guys will only get better as Kessler trusts them more.
Block U - For USC to walk away with another road win, they will have to ______________.
Conquest Chronicles - Not turn the ball over...Pound the football with Buck Allen...Not be afraid to utilize the screen game with Justin Davis, limiting Utah's pass rush...Play ahead of the chains on defense, and not be afraid to take chances by blitzing.