This season has not been typical for USC through three games. They are 1-2, appear dysfunctional and desperate for a win coming to Rice-Eccles on friday night. As mentioned in Wednesday’s article, the Trojans have lots of room for improvement and that goes for both the defense and the offense.
USC’s offense led by first year offensive coordinator Tee Martin has been underwhelming to begin the season, ranking last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, rushing offense and total offense. In passing offense, they aren’t much better ranking 10th in conference ahead of only lowly Oregon state and Stanford, who hasn’t really needed to throw the ball yet this season.
The ineffectiveness of the offense has been so concerning for head coach Clay Helton, that a somewhat controversial quarterback change was made earlier this week. Redshirt junior Max Browne is out, redshirt freshman Sam Darnold is in. It wasn’t so much that Browne performed poorly, rather Helton felt like Darnold would add a different dimension to the offense with his mobility (a trait Browne does not possess).
Darnold while not starting yet this season, has seen limited action in all three games. His stat line so far this season is 14-22, 136 yds, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception while completing 63.6% of his passes. Those aren’t bad numbers for a freshman, but it should be noted both of his touchdown passes came during a 45-7 blowout over Utah State. It’s hard to say how Darnold will fare in his very first start, but it would seem a nationally televised game on the road, against a team with the second most sacks in the nation, is a tough way to begin.
The USC offense has always used the run to set up the pass, and a freshman quarterback making in first start in a hostile road environment, will make establishing the run game all the more important. Senior Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones II have pretty much split the workload so far this year with Davis getting the most carries.
Through the first three games, Davis has gained 135 yards on 37 carries and no touchdowns while Ronald Jones II has gained 117 yards on 23 carries with one touchdown. Sophomore Aca’Cedric Ware accounted for the Trojans other lone rushing touchdown and has 79 yards on 17 carries.
As a team, the Trojans rank last in the Pac-12 averaging 119.67 yards per game rushing. Part of the problem moving the ball has been due to Alabama and Stanford’s superb defenses, but USC shouldn’t find much relief facing Utah’s defensive front. The Utes are only giving up half a yard more (105 yards/game) in rushing to opposing teams than Stanford (104.5 yards/game). Utah also gives up fewer yards per carry (3.46) than Stanford (3.60). Maybe this is the game USC’s run game comes together, but the numbers seem to suggest otherwise.
No matter how the run game is going, expect USC to take some shots downfield at some point during the game. Darnold has a strong arm and has a stable of talented receivers to throw to. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the Trojans best receiver, but has not seen as many targets as he would like so far this season. Smith-Schuster only has 11 catches for 99 yards through three games, but does have 2 of the teams 4 receiving touchdowns. Darreus Rogers is the team leader in receptions (13) and receiving yards (153) but has yet to catch a touchdown.
In order to help give the passing game a boost, Helton has hinted at Adoree Jackson coming over from the defense to see some snaps at receiver on Friday. Jackson would add another vertical threat and playmaker for the defense to account for. Against Stanford, Jackson entered the game as a receiver on a few plays, and while he didn’t catch any passes, he immediately drew the attention of the safeties, leaving Rogers and Smith-Schuster in one-on-one coverage with no help over the top. Look for the USC offense to do something similar on Friday and try to get behind the Utah secondary.
It’s never easy for an opposing offense to go up against Utah. The defensive line is deep and nasty and causes all sorts of problems for opposing quarterbacks. In the secondary, Marcus Williams is always lurking and Reggie Porter does a good job locking up the other teams leading receiver.
That being said, USC is a dangerous team right now. They need a win to get their season back on track and still have a talent advantage at most positions. If they put together a solid gameplan and play together, they are very capable of scoring a lot of points. This is a pivotal game for USC’s season, but it’s always hard to pick against Utah at home. Whatever the outcome, the winner will be step ahead in the race for the Pac-12 South.