Though football is the consummate team sport, there are certain individual matchups in each contest that are so lopsided they can significantly alter the game’s outcome.
Thursday night’s showdown between USC and Utah is no different, featuring a number of individual battles that seem to be an obvious advantage for one side.
Here are what appear to be four mismatches in tonight’s game that bear watching:
Holmes or Markowitz versus Lotulelei — edge: Utah
Senior center Khaled Holmes, a Rimington Award nominee, is an offensive captain and the anchor of the offensive line, but he might not be fully healthy after re-aggravating his ankle injury against California. If his bothersome ankle flares up, he will have little chance in slowing down Utah’s standout defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.
Before the season, CollegeFootballNews.com projected Lotulelei as the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL draft. At 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds, the senior from South Jordan, Utah has reinforced this praise, registering four tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles in 2012.
If Holmes is unable to play, senior Abe Markowitz will assume his spot. Though the former walk-on earned USC coach Lane Kiffin’s praise for his steady play at left guard against Cal, he would be making only his second career start and his first at center.
Dawson versus White — edge: USC
Before the season, this might have been a clear advantage for Utah. Entering the year, sophomore linebacker Lamar Dawson had only four career starts to his name, while Utah running back John White ran for 1,519 yards in his 2011 debut season. With former Oregon tailback LaMichael James now in the NFL, most expected White to take over James’ mantle as the Pac-12’s top running back.
But White is off to a slow start in 2012, averaging a mere 3.6 yards per carry. After sitting out of Utah’s Sept. 15 loss to BYU, White returned to action last Saturday against Arizona State and struggled mightily. Against the Sun Devils, he fumbled twice and ran for just 18 yards on 14 carries.
By contrast, after sitting out USC’s first two games because of a calf strain, Dawson appears ready to justify Kiffin’s decision to award him the hallowed No. 55 jersey, traditionally given to some of the best linebackers in USC history. Against Stanford and Cal, Dawson registered a combined 19 tackles.
USC’s second cornerback versus Christopher — edge: Utah
As Kiffin alluded to earlier this week, there’s no secret that offenses have so far avoided throwing into junior cornerback Nickell Robey’s coverage. As a result, it’s incumbent upon whoever emerges as the cornerback opposite Robey in this game to prepare for several passes coming his way.
Though the Trojans only surrendered 14 points to the Utes last season, wide receiver DeVonte Christopher, then a junior, racked up 136 receiving yards. Knowing Christopher represents the Utes’ greatest big-play threat, expect Utah coach Kyle Whittingham to do his best to call formations that will match him up against USC’s lesser cornerbacks.
Breslin versus Poutasi — edge: USC
Junior defensive end Morgan Breslin has been nothing short of a revelation through USC’s first four games. He is tied for fifth nationally with 9.5 tackles for a loss and is seventh with 5.5 sacks, even after not playing a game during the bye-week.
The junior college transfer from Diablo Valley College has officially become a player for whom opposing offensive coordinators must plan. Unfortunately for Utah, right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi is making only his third career start. Though Poutasi came out of Desert Pines High School as a relatively decorated recruit, earning recruiting attention from Oregon and Oregon State, he is still a freshman starting at a crucial position that is notoriously difficult to learn right away.