The Utes host USC Saturday night in a battle for PAC-12 South supremacy, and the trip couldn’t have come at a better time. Utah’s offense appears to be rolling after back-to-back conference wins, while the Trojans are dealing with a litany of potentially season-altering injuries along the defense. With a shot at the conference title on the line, fans should be ready for another epic showdown under the lights.
USC’s defensive unit has been far from elite this season, giving up an average of 25.16 points per game, along with 210 yards through the air and 151.8 yards on the ground. Even more alarming, the Trojans red zone defense is one of the worst in the nation, allowing opponents to score on 81.3% trips inside the 20. This shouldn’t be overly concerning since the Trojan offense has proven it can score enough to negate their defensive woes, but with a season ending injury to star linebacker, Porter Gustin and his cohort, Cameron Smith being a game-time decision, USC’s already soft defense may be even more susceptible than usual come Saturday night.
With Gustin on the bench, Utah will likely see more of Christain Rector, a redshirt junior who filled in for Gustin after he was sidelined with sporadic injuries last season. Rector is more than capable as a linebacker, channeling Porter’s disruptive nature last year when he recorded 7.5 sacks and 34 total tackles last season but is still a drastic step-down in overall production despite his intimdating 6’4” 275 lb. frame.
While Utah fans are likely already familiar with middle linebacker, Cameron Smith, who has simply dominated the Utes over the last two seasons, the senior is a game time decision heading into Saturday, a prospect made even more complicated considering his backup, freshman Palaie Gaoteote IV is also questionable due to a prior concussion. This would leave red shirt senior, Reuben Peters as the likely starter at the position, who despite his tenure with the Trojans, has only played in seven games for the Trojans. Considering his veteran status and overall lack of game-time experience, Utah’s offense may have a big advantage in the middle of the field.
A Trojan defense without Porter Gustin is certainly a more manageable battle for a Utah offense that has finally come into its own halfway through the season. A Trojan defense without Porter Gustin AND Cameron Smith may be depleted enough for Utah to comfortably take control of a still wide-open PAC-12 South.