Two teams reeling from lackluster offensive performances will face off in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, as USC will take on Utah in a matchup of squads desperate for a Pac-12 victory.
The Trojans (4-3, 1-2) are looking to rebound from a disastrous week that saw them go scoreless in the second half of a 14-10 loss to Notre Dame before learning that freshman tailback Justin Davis (ankle) and junior linebacker Lamar Dawson (knee) will miss the rest of the season. Senior outside linebacker Morgan Breslin was also ruled inactive for Saturday’s game.
The confirmed absences of those three only compound USC’s growing injury problem. Only one scholarship wide receiver (sophomore Nelson Agholor) has been confirmed as available for Saturday’s game, as junior Marqise Lee, freshman Darreus Rogers, redshirt sophomore Victor Blackwell and senior De’Von Flournoy are all battling nagging injuries.
The Trojans will be without all three of their scholarship tight ends. Sophomore Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick was ruled out on Thursday, and redshirt juniors Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer were listed as inactive earlier in the week. Senior defensive end Kevin Greene has received reps at practice this week, but it’s unclear if offensive coordinator Clay Helton is comfortable having Greene play on offense during a game.
“We don’t know exactly who’s going to play tight end,” Orgeron admitted.
Orgeron said that redshirt sophomore Anthony Sarao will start in place of Dawson at linebacker, and freshmen Quinton Powell and Michael Hutchings will see more playing time.
The Utes (4-3, 1-3) had to deal with injury issues of their own last week after quarterback Travis Wilson suffered a hand injury mid-game during a disappointing 35-24 road loss to Arizona. Utah posted its worst yardage output (329) of the year in the defeat. Wilson’s status for Saturday remains questionable, but he predicted earlier this week that he’d be able to take the field.
That could be bad news for USC — behind Wilson (1,655 passing yards, 14 touchdowns), the Utes have averaged 470 yards per game this season and pulled off the conference’s biggest upset thus far by knocking off Stanford 27-21 at home two weeks ago.
“They love to throw the ball and they run it really well, too,” USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron said.
Wilson has also had his fair share of growing pains, throwing 12 interceptions, but USC’s secondary hasn’t shown the ability to take advantage of those mistakes in recent weeks. After forcing six picks from opponents in the Trojans’ first two games, USC has only had one interception in its past five games.
Fortunately for redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler, one of the only two Pac-12 teams with fewer interceptions is Utah, who has only come up with two interceptions this season.
Another area both teams have struggled in is third-down conversions. USC ranks last in the conference (28.9 percent) while Utah is 10th (32.3 percent). The Utes have also been the worst team in the Pac-12 at preventing opponents from converting third-down chances (41.5 percent).
Orgeron said improving that part of the game was stressed throughout practice on Wednesday.
“We had a big emphasis on third downs, that was our emphasis of the day,” Orgeron said. “It’s huge for us on defense that we get off the field, obviously. And on offense we need to make some improvement on it. We focused on it today and hopefully we’re going to be better.”
A big reason USC struggled on third downs against Notre Dame (2-for-13) was the offensive line’s frustrating tendency to commit holding and false-start penalties that often put the Trojans in the unenviable position of having to convert on third and long. The unit will have to clean up its mistakes against a relentless Utah pass rush that leads the conference in sacks (22) by one over USC.
Both teams’ kickers also faltered last week, as junior kicker Andre Heidari and Utah’s Andy Phillips each missed two field goals. In a showdown between two fairly identical teams, it’s likely that special teams could provide the difference.
The Trojans are 6-1 all-time against Utah and have never lost to the Utes in the regular season. Even though this is clearly a different USC team than the squads that reigned over the Pac-10 in the mid-2000s without much resistance, the Trojans hope to put on a similar performance for their fans on Saturday.
“We have to stand behind Coach O, we have to win for [the coaches],” Sarao said. “And we have to show everyone that we’re Trojans.”
Saturday’s game will kick off at 1 p.m. and will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.