• John Skinner

Inside dirt and prep for Utah

Great defensive adjustments out the bye week- DC Clancy Pendergast put together a great gameplan against Colorado. We have highlighted the Trojans struggles in terms of creating pressure beyond the line of scrimmage and they answered the call by sacking the Buffs QB Steven Montez four times and finishing with 16 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, the most since 2009. This trend will need to continue against the Utes this week for the Trojans to escape Salt Lake City with a win.

Palaie Gaoteote deserves to wear and honor 55- Practice observers and pro scouts have mentioned true freshman Palaie Gaoteote “EA” with high praise since he arrived on campus as a five start recruit out of Bishop Gorman High School in Nevada. His performance against Colorado was so impressive that some have suggested the defense is better off with him on the field and not captain Cameron Smith. Now, Smith is also a great talent and will start when he recovers from his hamstring strain. However, EA appears to give SC the total package of true football instincts, speed and power that needs to consistently be on the field. EA’s idol is Junior Seau and he is the perfect player to honor #55 and get it back on the field.

Pro Football Focus grades- (80-84= very good/85+= NFL caliber 60-=poor) Offensively WR Michael Pittman had the best offensive grade with an 80. Other notable scores- RB’s Aca’ Cedric Ware 76, Stephen Carr 60.4, QB JT Daniels 60.3. The tight ends continue to fail on a weekly basis- Tyler Petite graded at a 50 and Josh Falo checked in at a team low 33.

Defensively, Nickel back Ajene Harris scored an impressive 82.1 and LB Levi Jones continues to show he deserves more playing time with an 81.5. Other notable scores- Saftey Marvell Tell 80.1, Palaie Gaoteote 77.1 and Inman Marshall struggled with a 62.5.

The loss of Gustin is tough but shouldn’t be as bad as predicted- There is no doubt that Porter Gustin is a stud and the team leader in sacks will be missed and the loss of his leadership has been noticeable in practice this week. However, from a football perspective, Gustin did have some issues with maintaining gap integrity and was all about tackles for losses/sacks when the right defensive play was to not over-pursue. Last season, Junior Christian Rector successfully replaced Gustin in the “predator” position, with five sacks in four games in 2017, becoming an Associated Press midseason All-American Second team selection. However, he has no sacks this season after moving to defensive end.

The plan to replace Gustin- Junior Jordan Iosefa, freshman Kana'i Mauga and Junior Connor Murphy took the majority of reps at outside linebacker while the Trojans prepped for a run-heavy Utah offense. Christian Rector was at defensive end, alongside Marlon Tuipulotu and Malik Dorton. Sources within the program anticipate Kana'i Mauga to be the most impressive of the three.

Trojans thin at Cornerback- SC cannot afford another injury in the defensive backfield as freshman Olaijah Griffin injured his shoulder and will not play today. Back-up Nickel CB Jonathan Lockett has a hip injury and is most likely out as well leaving redshirt freshman Greg Johnson to back-up Iman Marshall and Isaiah Langley. The lack of depth could lead to a tired group as the fourth quarter rolls around. Also, generally speaking, the Trojans need to shore up this position from a recruiting standpoint and the de-commitment of four-star Chris Steele didn’t help.

Perspective on why Helton and staff received an extension- Fans that are really frustrated the SC athletic administration signed Clay Helton to an extension last year need to also think about where the SC football team would be currently and what the future prospects would be without three of its top 5 players. True freshman Palaie Gaoteote , JT Daniels and Amon’Ra St. Brown are the foundation of the next few years of the program. Ultimately you need talent to win at a high level and giving Helton that extension assured no disruption with that critical recruiting class. This is one of the main reasons for the extension besides the two straight New Year six bowl appearances and wanting stability within the football program.

Now, on the flip side, from a coaching perspective, one could argue the team would be better off as a whole if they played a more discipline and physical brand of football. You can make adjustments to that with coaching staff upgrades but what you can’t adjust for is a lack of talent, especially at the QB position.

Coaching Staff Part II- Clay Helton will need to make some coaching staff adjustments in the off-season if he wants to be the Trojans long-term leader of the program. However, it is tough for a perceived lame duck coach to add significant/top tier assistant coaches if they believe they might be out of a job in one year.

SC’s second half game performance continues to disappoint- SC was held scoreless in the final 25 minutes vs a porous Arizona defense and were held without a touchdown in the whole second half at Texas and Stanford. If you discount the UNLV (non-power 5) game, the Trojans have been outscored 54-23 in the second half of games. Whether it is being outcoached or a lack of focus during games, this trend has to change. If the Trojans did a better job with clock management and finishing off Colorado, Porter Gustin doesn’t break his ankle in the 4th quarter.

Utah has the best defense the Trojans have faced- JT cannot continue to throw off his back foot against pressure!- Per Tom Haire’s report, Utah leads the conference in rushing defense (74.8 yards per game, second nationally), pass efficiency defense (18th nationally), and total defense (300.0, ninth nationally) – and is tied for first in scoring defense (16.0, 10th nationally). They have a great red zone defense, allowing points on just nine of opponents’ 16 opportunities (tops in the conference, second nationally), and also lead the Pac-12 in sacks (three per game) and opponent third-down conversion percentage (31.5) They also rank second in the conference in tackles for loss (7.3 per game) and third in the conference with five interceptions. The only weakness they have shown is passing yards per game where they rank seventh in the conference.

The bottom line is SC will most likely have trouble establishing a running game and JT Daniels is going to have to make big-time throws today. He has really struggled with his throwing mechanics when facing pressure and Utah will be blitzing early and often. The SC offense must incorporate tight end Josh Falo and RB Stephen Carr in the passing game especially if they can’t get the running game going.

Extensive Game Preview- Here is Tom Haire’s extensive game preview via uscfootball.com.

Betting Preview- The spread opened with Utah favored by 6.5 points and it is now at 7.5. The over/under is 48. SC is 2-7 against the spread “ATS” in their last nine and covered last week. The total has gone under in four of the past five Trojan road games. Utah is 6-3 ATS in their last nine and 4-2 in their last six at home. The Trojans have not covered as an underdog on the road going back to last year and have been blown out in those games.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits-

* LB Palaie Gaoteote has been cleared to play after suffering a concussion against Colorado. Cameron Smith will be a game-time decision but will most likely sit this one out.

*Maintaining gap integrity and not over-pursuing on defense will be extremely important against the Utes as QB Tyler Huntley is mobile and has rushed for 207 yards and 3 td’s this season.

*It is homecoming at Utah and it will be a raucous environment with this essentially being a Pac-12 South title game.

*Utah will have a decided advantage when it comes to special teams. K Matt Gay was Last year’s Lou Groza Award winner (best placekicker in college football) and is having another All-American year going perfect on extra points and 8 for 11 on field goals with a long of 49 yards. Punter Mitch Wishnowsky won the Ray Guy award for the best punter in the nation two years ago and is averaging 44.6 yards per punt, good for 18th in the nation.

*In the past two Pac-12 victories, SC has turned the ball over six times, committed 31 combined penalties and converted just 7 of 26 third-down opportunities. The Trojans will get blown out today if these trends continue.