When the Week 11 College Football Playoff rankings were released on Tuesday, USC vaulted to No. 11 in the polls, up six spots from last week. The Trojans are now positioned to make some noise on the national stage if they win out and capture the Pac-12 Championship. But for now, head coach Clay Helton and his team are concerned about the task at hand: a tough road game on Saturday against Colorado.
“We’re just focused on the next game, to be honest with you,” Helton said. “This team has always been about preparation and treating it like a playoff game, each game like a playoff game.”
This year’s Colorado team has been disappointing compared to last year’s — and for good reason. In 2016, the Buffaloes shocked the college football world by finishing the regular season at 10-2 and capturing the Pac-12 South for the first time in school history. After building a reputation as one of the most woeful Power-5 conference schools in the nation, Colorado earned its first winning season since 2005 and its first ten win season since 2001. Head coach Mike MacIntyre won the Walter Camp Coach of the Year Award for leading the massive turnaround.
Following up the team’s magical 2016 season was never going to be easy. Colorado clinched bowl eligibility in October last year, but the Buffaloes are still fighting for that goal right now, sitting at 5-5 with two games left. Saying a return to the Pac-12 Championship lies out of reach is an understatement, as Colorado currently stands dead last in the South division. The Buffaloes’ lack of success might be a tad misleading, however. Unlike last year when the team found ways to eke out close games against the likes of Oregon, Stanford and Utah, Colorado has been on the other side of the 8-ball in 2017. Three of its five defeats were decided by less than two touchdowns.
“They put good defensive personnel on the field and they’re very well coached,” Helton said. “I haven’t seen any fall off from last year … The kids are playing very fast, very physical and you look at it, they’ve been in close ball game after close ball game against some really good teams.”
Colorado’s biggest strength is undoubtedly its ground game anchored by star running back Phillip Lindsay. The undersized (5-foot-8, 190 pounds), yet deceptively powerful back averages 133.4 rushing yards a game on an FBS high 263 carries. He’s a threat out of the backfield too, with 11.7 yards per reception (he snagged a nifty 60 yard catch last week). In spite of Lindsay’s fantastic and prolific season, Colorado has struggled to convert his production into points, ranking second-to-last in the conference with 28.0 points per game.
The Trojans are tasked with stopping Lindsay and Buffalo quarterback Steven Montez (2,404 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, seven interceptions), after two solid defensive outings against Arizona and Arizona State. USC has shown a knack for making big plays on defense, recording the most sacks in the Pac-12 (34) and the second-most interceptions (13), yet the team still grapples with consistency. Against Arizona, the Trojans’ defensive front bottled up quarterback Khalil Tate in the first half but then allowed him to explode in the final two quarters. He rattled off runs of 32, 21 and 52 yards in the second half, bringing the Wildcats back from a seemingly insurmountable 22-point deficit.
The defense could potentially be aided by the return of sophomore defensive lineman Christian Rector, who broke his hand in practice a couple of weeks ago. He practiced with his hand clubbed on Thursday, and Helton said he will be a gametime decision for Saturday.
On the offensive side of the ball, USC is starting to fire on all cylinders.
Sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold threw an ugly interception on the goal line last week, but otherwise played a spotless game, completing 77 percent of his passes to 10 different receivers combined with three touchdown strikes.
Meanwhile, junior running back Ronald Jones II carried over momentum from his season-high 216- yard rushing performance against Arizona State, rumbling for 194 yards and three touchdowns against the Wildcats. The “Texas Tesla” will not have to shoulder the entire rushing load against Colorado. Freshman back Stephen Carr is finally healthy after being plagued by a foot injury for weeks, and junior Aca’Cedric Ware burst open for a breakout game last week. His 122 yards on 8.7 yards per carry helped the Trojans reach the 300-yard rushing benchmark for the third time this season.
“I’ve been really pleased with what [offensive coordinator Tee Martin] has done,” Helton said. “When you think about where we are right now, we’re a very balanced offense. We’re rushing for over 200 yards a game, throwing for almost 300. It’s the best offensive numbers since 2005.”
Saturday’s game kicks off at 1 p. m. PST. USC leads the all-time series with Colorado 11-0.