Practice places focus on limiting two impact players
USC took the practice field Wednesday ahead of Saturday’s matchup with No. 19 Colorado with two Buffaloes in mind: junior quarterback Steven Montez and sophomore wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr.
Montez is a model of efficiency, as proven by his 11:2 touchdown to interception ratio this season. He has completed 75.2 percent of his passes, good for second in the nation despite attempting more passes than anyone else in the top five. The third-year starter doesn’t only rely on short passes either; his 9.3 yards per attempt ranks 14th in the FBS.
“Now he’s been in the system for a little bit, you can really see his maturity within the offense,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “He can make all the throws, and he makes a lot of plays with his feet as well.”
Unlike Montez, Shenault came into 2018 as a relatively unknown player, but he’s made a name for himself early this season. He ranks third in the country in both receptions and yards — 51 and 708, respectively — and has added six receiving touchdowns.
Shenault is a multifaceted threat, reflected in his four rushing touchdowns in just five games. His 749 total yards from scrimmage rank 11th in the nation, partially a result of a creative Colorado offense.
“They line him up in a lot of different spots, they do a really nice job of covering him up,” Pendergast said. “I think the most impressive thing offensively that they do is multiplicity within their formations, and he’s a big part of that.”
Coming off a 13-reception, 127-yard performance against Arizona State that featured four total touchdowns and earned him Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week, the Trojans will be hard-pressed to limit Shenault.
Part of the Buffaloes’ offensive creativity comes from their use of trick plays and wildcat formations. Trick plays have burned the Trojans at times this year, most notably on a 71-yard touchdown run from UNLV during Week 1.
“We just have to play with good eye discipline and control, and play them when they come,” Pendergast said. “They’ve got a really good package of trick plays, and they use multiple people in [them].”
Although the calls may seem like a gimmick, players have full confidence in their coaches’ play-calling.
“It’s a lot of eye candy no doubt, but coach [Pendergast] just says ‘keep your eyes on your luggage,’” freshman safety Talanoa Hufanga said. “We need to see where our guy goes, and make sure that we follow up. When the ball crosses the line of scrimmage, that’s when we know we have to attack.”
Wednesday’s practice featured an emphasis on third down, which Helton said would be crucial against a talented offense like Colorado’s, especially with Montez’s ability to create outside the pocket at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds.
“You look at what he’s doing right now, escaping and creating, and not only running the ball and pulling it down, but actually finding his receivers,” Helton said. “We’re going to need to contain him and get off the field.”
That also applied to the other side of the ball; Helton said that Colorado brings a variety of pressures on third down, and that protecting freshman quarterback JT Daniels could be a deciding factor.
After a sloppy start to the season, the Trojans are looking to prove themselves in a matchup with a ranked team under the Coliseum lights.
“We’re trying to get back to that Pac-12 Championship [game],” redshirt senior cornerback Ajene Harris said. “Every game is important, and we’re all aware of that. We’re just ready to compete.”
Sophomore running back Stephen Carr did not attend practice due to a stomach illness. The staff held out redshirt senior center Toa Lobendahn with back spasms. Senior linebacker Porter Gustin is expected to be at full strength Saturday after recovering from an ankle injury.
Senior linebacker Cam Smith left practice early with a tight hamstring. Helton said it was nothing serious, just a preventative measure. The staff also pulled Brandon Pili after the sophomore defensive lineman had his toe stepped on. Helton said they would get an X-ray as a precaution.