The 3-2 Trojans set their sights on extending their win streak after coming off their bye week as they square off with an undefeated Colorado team in the Coliseum on Saturday. USC barely made it out of Tucson with a win in their last game, after nearly surrendering a large second-half lead to the Wildcats as it racked up 18 penalties on the night.
The Buffaloes, ranked No. 19 in the nation at 5-0, hold the top spot in the Pac-12 South — just one place above the Trojans. This game carries implications, as it’s likely that the winner finds themselves playing at Levi’s Stadium for a Pac-12 Championship come December.
“It’s a talented team that has a lot of confidence, and every little thing we can get ahead on [will help],” head coach Clay Helton said. “Every little tool we can put in our toolbox is going to be crucial. And they walked out there and they were very business-like. [There was] very much a sense of urgency, and I was proud of them.”
USC Offense vs. Colorado Defense
The Trojan offense has looked markedly better over the course of the last two weeks, largely thanks to the improved play of the offensive line. While it struggled against both Stanford and Texas, the line turned in steady performances over the last two games in both the run game (366 rush yards) and pass protection (three sacks allowed).
Freshman quarterback JT Daniels and the passing game looks to be clicking now after a rough start to the season. He threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 66 percent of his passes against Washington State and completing 65 percent against Arizona.
The receiving corps appears to have come to life after also having a rather sluggish start to the year, with wide outs redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns and junior Michael Pittman Jr. posting impressive performances against Washington State with 64 and 72 yards, respectively, and one touchdown each. Freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has continued to play at the high level he started the year with, leading the team with 25 receptions, 396 yards and two touchdowns, despite his relatively limited snaps. Sophomore tight end Josh Falo showed an impact for the Trojans for the first time this season, tying with St. Brown for the highest yardage against Arizona with 54 yards.
The running game appears to have found its stride as well, as the trio of senior Aca’Cedric Ware, sophomore Stephen Carr and redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai have dominated on the ground over the past two weeks, scoring five touchdowns on nine yards per carry.
The quality of the defenses that the Trojan offense has faced recently has helped with their offensive production, but against a Colorado defense giving up an average of 18.4 points per game, things won’t be as easy for USC. The Buffaloes have only given up more than 21 points once on the year (28 by Nebraska), and have their fair share of playmakers on that side of the ball. Sophomore linebacker Nate Landman has racked up 45 tackles and two interceptions on the year, while sophomore defensive end Mustafa Johnson leads the team in sacks with 4.5.
Colorado Offense vs. USC Defense
The Colorado offense comes into this week ranked No. 18 in total offense. Junior quarterback Steven Montez is an NFL caliber prospect who is tied with Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama for the highest completion percentage in FBS at 75.2 percent, to go with 1,420 passing yards and 11 touchdowns against only two interceptions.
“[You can] just see [Montez’s] comfortability now and his poise in the pocket,” Helton said. “He’s not throwing a lot of interceptions. He’s 11-2 right now, 75 percent completion. He looks like he’s got three years of experience under his belt. He’s guiding the football team, not making any mistakes. He’s one of the reasons they’re 5-0.”
The Buffaloes have firepower on the ground as well, with senior running back Travon McMillan gaining 528 yards and four touchdowns. Montez himself has added 125 yards and three scores.
“[Colorado’s] effectiveness in their run game is underrated, which is making them stay extremely balanced,” Helton said. “You look at their percentages on first and second down, it’s heavy run. They want to be a run team first, they take their shot and then get the ball out on the perimeter.”
However, it’s sophomore receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. who will demand the bulk of the USC defense’s attention on Saturday. Shenault leads the country in receiving yards and receptions per game, with a stat line of 51 catches for 708 yards and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage in only five games. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Shenault has been unstoppable, whether he’s carrying the ball out of the backfield, making tacklers miss in the open field or burning entire secondaries down the sideline.
Washington State’s potent passing offense was a challenge for the Trojans, and the duo of Montez and Shenault will threaten to be even more dangerous. The Trojan defense has struggled to generate much pass rush, with four sacks in the previous four contests. Senior outside linebacker Porter Gustin has been the only player able to reach the quarterback, recording two-thirds of the team’s sacks. A big game from him and improved play from teammates like redshirt junior defensive lineman Christian Rector seem essential if the Trojans want to slow down Colorado’s passing game.
Although the veteran duo of seniors cornerback Iman “Biggie” Marshall and safety Marvell Tell III have performed steadily for the secondary, it’ll be up to players like senior cornerback Isaiah Langley, freshman cornerback Olaijah Griffin and freshman safety Talanoa Hufanga to step up in order to keep Montez in check. Expect the Trojans to fare better in defending the run, where they’ve been good for most of the year, led by senior linebacker Cameron Smith and his 47 tackles.
“One of the beauties of having our schedule is you always have to be in playoff championship mentality,” Helton said. “It makes you ready for these games. It doesn’t matter if it’s Stanford, Texas [or] Washington State on the road. It’s always like it’s the Super Bowl. Our kids are used to that now. Now we’re coming in playing for first place.”
Prediction: Colorado 35, USC 28
The Trojans and Buffaloes match up well, and the game could realistically go either way. After all, it is a home game for the Trojans, who haven’t lost at the Coliseum in 18 games. The game hinges on USC’s defense; if they’re able to contain Montez and Shenault, the Trojans could very well add another game to their home win streak. However, the Colorado offense is incredibly potent. It seems like a lot to ask of the Trojan offense to expect them to keep up. Expect a high scoring game, but for Colorado to potentially pull away late.
Delanie Pence contributed to this report.