USC’s offensive unit is a veritable “Who’s Who” of top ranked high school recruits and future NFL stars. Few teams in the PAC-12, let alone the nation, field as much raw talent any given Saturday than the Trojans, and Clay Helton’s 2018 squad is no different. After a 1-2 start to the season, USC’s offense is now rolling, outscoring opponents 94-76 in their current three game winning streak. With four very winnable conference games ahead of them, the only thing stopping the Trojans from claiming yet another PAC-12 South title is a stout Utah defense hoping to capture the crown for themselves.
The star of USC’s offense is none other than the highly touted true freshman quarterback, JT Daniels. Pre-season headlines were dominated by the 18-year-old, who graduated early to enroll at USC and claim the starting job; an impressive feat for someone who should technically be enjoying his senior year of high school. Despite his age and lack of experience, Daniels has compiled a decent stat sheet, completing 58.4% of passes for 1,540 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. For reference, Daniel’s completion percentage is the second lowest of all starting quarterbacks in the PAC-12, edging out Khalil Tate, who has mustered only 53.4%, but has racked up more passing yards than six other QB’s, falling only 50 yards short of Colorado’s, Steven Montez. Digging deeper, his 202 passing attempts this season is bested only by Gardner Minshew, who has a nation leading 313 attempts. All things considered, Daniels looks just as good as an average PAC-12 quarterback in his freshman season.
Downfield, Daniels has a trio of young receivers that have made his transition from high school to college a bit easier. Sophomore Tyler Vaughns has picked up where he left off after an impressive freshman campaign where he racked up 809 receiving yards and five touchdowns. In his second year as a Trojan, Vaughn has 330 yards with two touchdowns, proving to be one of the more reliable receivers in the PAC-12 South. While Vaughn has continued his dominance, junior Michael Pittman Jr. has stepped into a larger role in 2018 with ease. With limited time last season, Pittman managed just 23 receptions and 404 yards and two touchdowns. Since stepping into a starting role in the 2018, Pittman has become a critical piece to the Trojan’s offense, grabbing 17 passes for 364 yards and three touchdowns. As if keeping Vaughn and Pittman contained wasn’t daunting enough for Utah’s secondary, JT Daniel’s former high school teammate, Amon-Ra St. Brown is quickly making a name for himself.
As the other half of Mater Dei’s dynamic duo, St. Brown’s chemistry with Daniels is undeniable. Leading the Trojans with 29 receptions and 427 yards, Amon-Ra St. Brown has a knack for escaping coverage and gaining yards after the catch, showcasing his speed and footwork in the process. He may only be a freshman, but St. Brown looks every part a future first round draft pick at this point in his young career.
Up front, the Utes will face two formidable running backs in senior Aca’Cedric Ware and sophomore Steven Carr. With nearly identical stat lines, Ware has a slight statistical lead with 60 attempts for 358 yards while Carr has gained 296 yards on his 59 carries. Both backs struggled in USC’s losses to Stanford and Texas, and again against Colorado, where they combined for 43 yards on 18 total carries good for an average of 2.38 yards per run. The Utes are second in the nation for rush defense, allowing 74.8 yards per average, and 2.4 yards per rush. Texas is the only other team the Trojans have faced this year who are in the top 50 in rush defense, allowing 3.75 yards per attempt, suggesting this is a matchup that heavily favors the Utes.
Whoever wins this game is in the driver’s seat to clinch the PAC-12 South title, an accomplishment that has alluded the Utes since the conference expanded in 2011. With USC’s young talent only poised to get better with age and experience, this might be a do or die opportunity for the Utah.