Trojans prep for tough test in the Lone Star State

Sophomore running back Stephen Carr is one of the members of the “three-headed monster,” the trio of Trojan backs. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

After a defeat on the road to Stanford, the Trojans come into this week as the 22nd-ranked team in the nation, down eight spots from last week. They’ll match up Saturday night with a Texas team also struggling to find its footing under second-year head coach Tom Herman, coming off of a week one loss to unranked Maryland and a close win against unranked Tulsa.

Last year’s contest between the two teams — the first since Texas’ victory in the 2006 Rose Bowl — was a double- overtime thriller in the Coliseum. On Thursday, USC held its final practice  before traveling to Texas.

USC Offense vs. Texas Defense

The Trojan offense sputtered last week as it only managed to put up 3 points — USC’s first game without a touchdown since its big loss Alabama two years ago in Dallas. The Texas pass rush should provide a nice change of pace for the Trojan offensive line, which struggled mightily in pass protection against Stanford, giving up four sacks and four hurries on the night against an undersized Cardinal front seven.

“The major concern is the protection for some pressure,” head coach Clay Helton said. “[We don’t have] any scouting report because each and every week is unique and different, so we’re going to have to do a great job of communication as a staff, without kids, about what’s going on within game. Sit down, draw it up and be able to diagnose and get them on the right peak.”

Texas only has one sack after its first two games — as poorly as it looked in pass blocking last week, this game should offer the offensive line a chance to bounce back. The run blocking for USC should be even less of a problem, as the Trojans imposed their will against the Cardinal for much of the game. Sophomore Stephen Carr, senior Aca’Cedric Ware and redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai should have an opportunity to run wild over a Longhorns defense which gave up 189 yards to Tulsa last week.

“I … feel like it’s their pass rushers and their pressures against our offensive line,” Helton said. “Going back and watching last year’s film, [we saw] how many times that [former USC quarterback Sam Darnold] was off his spot. What I mean by that is instead of that nice rhythm … he was forced to get off his spot and move and have to create. I’m hoping to keep that pocket integrity to be able to have a young quarterback … diagnose and see that coverage.”

Freshman quarterback JT Daniels and the performance of the passing offense remain the biggest wildcards on offense for the Trojans this week. After his impressive opening day performance against UNLV, Daniels struggled against the Cardinal as he ran for his life much of the night, completing less than half of his passing attempts. Although veteran receivers redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns and junior Michael Pittman performed well, the Trojans need to get freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown more involved in their passing attack. St. Brown has repeatedly shown that he’s one of the most dynamic players on the team, and USC will look to get him the ball more often than it did against Stanford.

Texas’ secondary is probably the biggest strength of its defense — the athleticism of the group is obvious. The coaches will have to maximize opportunities for Daniels by creating well designed plays for his best targets, which they struggled with last week.

Texas Offense vs. USC Defense

Despite the loss, the USC defense was impressive across the board last week as it held an explosive Stanford offense to only 17 points and 342 yards. The secondary was especially impressive, limiting junior quarterback KJ Costello to 183 yards on the night, and holding senior receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside to 63 yards after his outburst of more than 200 yards the week before. Texas’ passing offense has some firepower, led by sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who walked into the Coliseum and put on a show in last year’s matchup. Ehlinger had a bit of a rough start to his season against Maryland in the opener, but bounced back against Tulsa, completing over 70 percent of his passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns.

Junior receivers Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Colin Johnson are both tough matchups as the Trojans have previously seen, as Johnson dominated against them last year with seven receptions for 191 yards. The USC secondary appears to be more impressive than last year’s unit, with senior veterans Marvell Tell III and Iman Marshall playing at a high level. The loss of redshirt freshman starting safety Isaiah Pola-Mao for the year could prove to be a defensive vulnerability, as it brings USC down to it’s third starter at the position.

Redshirt sophomore CJ Pollard and freshman Talanoa Hufanga, who both played heavy snaps last week after Pola-Mao went down, will compete for plays at the safety position.

“I think our team is in very good condition, but we do plan on playing a lot of guys,” Helton said. “We’ve talked about that as a staff … taking the same approach we did with UNLV. [We will be] able to roll guys in waves when given the opportunity with substitution.”

The performance of the Trojan front seven has been a mixed bag so far, with impressive play from the interior linemen and linebackers while the edge defenders have struggled in playing both the run and pass. The edge defenders — comprising senior Porter Gustin, junior Jordan Iosefa and redshirt junior Christian Rector — have struggled in setting the edge on run plays, allowing for explosive rushing gains outside the tackles, as evidenced by senior running back Bryce Love who gained nearly the entirety of his 136 yards from such runs.

Texas’ rushing attack has been impressive to this point, averaging nearly 200 yards on the ground through two games, led by backs graduate student Tre Watson and freshman Keaontay Ingram. Ehlinger himself has proven a threat when he takes off, having rushed for 81 yards so far — a problem for a USC defense that gave up over 80 yards to sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers of UNLV in week one.

“[Communication between players] is a big part of it anytime you go out on the road, especially in a hostile environment,” Helton said. “I imagine Texas is going to be even louder than Stanford — bigger stadium, a night game, a big game for both universities.”