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Utah Opponent Preview: USC Defense

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Utah travels to the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles and the Colosseum on Saturday to take on the USC Trojans. Today we'll take a look at their defense, which has had an up an down season through six games.

The defense is coached by Justin Wilcox, who came to USC with former head coach Steve Sarkisian from Washington last season. Wilcox runs a 3-4 scheme and led the defense to a fifth place ranking in total defense a year ago. The Trojans currently rank seventh in conference in total defense this season, and the general perception is USC's defense should be better, especially against the run, given the talent on the roster. Let's take a look at some of the talent on the USC defense.

Defensive Line

The defensive line lost their best player from a year ago, when Leonard Williams headed to the NFL. Williams took with him 80 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, and 7 sacks. So far this season, none of the USC returning linemen have been able to replicate the loss of production. The veteran group is led by senior defensive tackle Delvon Simmons with 26 tackles with 2 tackles for a loss and a sack. Senior defensive end Greg Townsend Jr. is not far behind, with 22 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks. Sophomore defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr. has emerged this season with 2 sacks, and senior tackle Antwaun Woods has 11 tackles and 2 quarterback hurries. As a unit the defensive line has accounted for five sacks and eight tackles for a loss through six games.


There are some familiar names in this position group with two Utah kids, Porter Gustin and Osa Masina, seeing playing time at linebacker as freshman for the Trojans. Masina, the younger brother of Utah linebacker Uaea Masina, has 22 tackles for USC while Guston has 13 tackles and 2 sacks. The linebacking corps for USC is particularly deep with another freshman Cameron Smith leading the team in tackles with 53. Su'a Cravens, a junior, is probably the most complete linebacker for USC. Cravens has 41 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, 3 passes broken up and a forced fumble. Junior linebacker Scott Felix has 2.5 sacks and 14 tackles. Seniors Anthony Sarao and Lamar Dawson round out the USC linebackers making for an extremely talented and deep group of athletes.


The name that stands out in the young USC secondary is sophomore cornerback and speedster Adoree' Jackson. The most talented player on the field at any given time, Jackson is a threat both on offense and defense as well as special teams. On defense this year he's recorded 14 tackles with a forced fumble and a pass defended. Jackson has the speed to keep up with anyone on the field and the ability to prevent big plays.

Sophomore Chris Hawkins has emerged in a big way at the free safety position for USC. Hawkins is fourth on the team in tackles with 25. He has an interception and a 94 yard fumble return for a touchdown this season. Freshman cornerback Iman Marshall is another good young player in the Trojan secondary and is a big corner, standing 6-2 and weighing 200 lbs. He has 24 tackles, an interception and two passes defended for the year. The USC secondary is young, but supremely talented and has the speed to cover Utah's receivers.


The Trojan defense is loaded with former five star recruits and future first round draft picks, yet the mass of talent has not always translated into results on the field this season. The USC defense hasn't been terrible, but it hasn't been very good either. They rank seventh in the conference in both rushing and passing yards allowed. They are allowing 4.24 yards per rush to opposing defenses and an average of 167.5 yards rushing per game. Against Notre Dame on Saturday they gave up 6.11 yards per rush to the Fighting Irish. Arizona State, despite being blown out by the Trojans, ran the ball at a clip of 5.2 yards per carry. Against Stanford earlier this season in the Coliseum, USC allowed 3.98 yards per carry and three rushing touchdowns, while allowing Stanford to sustain long methodical, clock eating drives.

Travis Wilson showed last week against Arizona State, that if push comes to shove, he can beat a team with his arm. That being said, Devontae Booker is still this team's bread and butter. On the road in the Colesium, it will be important for Utah to get a run game established. Based on USC's performance to this point in the season, there is no reason to doubt Booker should have an easier time running against the Trojan front than he did against Arizona State's front last week. Booker should pay attention to ball security, however, as the USC defense has forced and recovered six fumbles this season, tying them with Utah for second in the Pac-12.

Speaking of Wilson being able to pass the ball, his performance last week should cause the Trojans to respect the pass in this game, potentially freeing up more room for Booker. The Trojans are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 57.2 percent of their passes and give up 235 yards passing a game. The Trojan secondary only has four interceptions on the year, ranking them 11th in the conference, but has the talent to boost that number in a hurry if an opposing quarterback starts making poor decisions. Wilson has done a great job this season taking care of the ball and has looked poised in the pocket. As a senior, this will be Wilson's second start at the Colesium, so intimidation should not play a factor.

Overall, the Trojans defense has the talent to shut down any team in the nation. In that respect, they are a scary defense to go up against on the road. At home, they allow only 18.3 points per game, versus 27.5 points per game on the road, playing much better at home. However, in the year and a half Wilcox has served as coordinator, the Trojans have shown no evidence of being a top rated defense. Talent can only get a team so far, and looking at both USC and Utah, it's clear which team is better coached. The stats suggest Utah should be able to move the ball against the Trojan front seven and Wilson should be able to complete some passes against the Trojan secondary.

The question looming is how will USC respond at home, coming off three losses in their past four games and with an interim coach? Will the Trojans pack it in and implode? Or will they come out inspired and play their best game of the year? Arizona State got a glimpse of what an inspired USC team can do, and it isn't pretty for the opposing team. If USC comes out fired up and their future NFL players play up to their talent level, it could be a tough game for the offense. However, if the same USC defense we've seen so far this season comes to play, Utah has the talent and discipline to both run and the ball effectively.