Inside dirt heading into Colorado
Why it could be “Friday night fright” in Boulder- Though SC is a 13 point favorite and have never lost to Colorado (13-0), a few important things point to this potentially being a much tougher game than expected. Pac-12 road teams are an awful 5-15 in Friday night games with a shortened week of preparation. The Trojans are 2-7 in their last nine road games and 0-3 on the road this season.
Injuries have hit some of SC’s best defensive players over the past two weeks with potentially 7 starters missing the game. They and will be facing Buffs Senior QB Steven Montez (passer rating of 159.30 in the first month of the season, averaging 291 yards per game with 9 TD’s and 2 INT) and WR Laviska Shenault, a game-breaker who was a legitimate Heisman trophy candidate last year and projected 2020 NFL 1st round pick.
Psychologically speaking, like the BYU game, this is a “trap game” with #11 Oregon visiting the Coliseum next week for a prime-time game. It can be tough for college-aged players to stay completely focused. We saw a great example of that last week with the #5 Wisconsin, a 31 point favorite, losing on the road to Illinois while anticipating a match-up with #3 Ohio State this week. Along those lines, from a weather perspective, the Trojans will have gone from practicing in 90 degree weather to playing the game in 45 degree temperatures.
Why the Trojans will overcome the worries stated above and roll to a victory in Boulder- The Trojans are heavily favored from a statistical and momentum standpoint. The Buffs are coming off back-to-back blow-out losses in road games at Oregon (45-3) and Washington State (41-10). They also lost at home in a tight battle with Arizona. The Buffs have one of the worst pass defense in the country and are giving up an average passer efficiency rating of 155.8 this season, worst in the Pac-12, while also allowing 3 touchdowns per game through the air. They have allowed a whopping 41 plays of 20 yards or more in seven games, with 14 of those going for touchdowns. The Buffs defense has surrendered 30 points in its last 12 games. Injuries to their secondary have led to multiple true freshman unexpectedly playing a lot of snaps and that will continue against SC with their top two cornerbacks out.
Thus, Kedon Slovis and the Trojans receiving core, which is easily the most talented group the Buffs have faced this season, should put up very impressive numbers.
Offensively, the talented Colorado QB Montez has routinely struggled against the Trojans and though he put up the great stats mentioned above in the first month of the season, his numbers have been awful in their past three games, throwing six interceptions to just one touchdown with a passer rating dropping to 95.52.
Upgrade to coaching staff becoming evident- Even those who are not Clay Helton fans must acknowledge the improvement in player development at several position groups under new leadership.
Most notably, offensive line coach Tim Drevno deserves a lot of credit for the job he is doing. The pass protection has been solid and the suspect run blocking seems to be stabilizing with the Trojans having two 200-yard rushing performances in the past three games. Five offensive lineman graded out in the top seven overall offensive players this week and they have had multiple players receive pro-football focus grades of 80+, which was an extreme rarity the past two seasons.
The biggest concern area from a depth and experience standpoint was the secondary and Greg Burns has done a great job given the circumstances. Last week, the Trojans faced one of the best statistical offenses in the Pac-12 and pitched a shut-out for three quarters despite a rash of injuries to the secondary forcing players into their first real game action of the season. The secondary has only given up a handful of plays over 40 yards and some of the best individual performances of the season have come via players in the secondary (Hufanga, Steele and Pola-Mao).
Defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a, has been integral in improving the toughness of one of the teams most talented position groups. They currently rank second in the Pac-12 in sacks/21st nationally as 2nd in tackles for loss.
Though the offense has had its share of bumps in the road, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has the offense performing at a higher level than the previous season despite losing starting QB JT Daniels in the first game and having to go with 3rd string QB Matt Fink at Washington. Furthermore, the offensive production in the second half of games has increased significantly compared to the past two seasons. Keep in mind, it takes at least one full season before you see a new offense click on all cylinders and they have faced the fourth toughest schedule in the country.
Offensive production and pace in 1st half needs to improve- We heard it was the focus of practice last week and that we should expect an explosive offensive performance…we saw neither. Though the Trojans scored 41 points, the offense was out of sorts in the first half and moving slowly between plays. Like against Notre Dame, the tempo picked up in the second half. For the Trojans to stay in control of the Pac-12 south, better first half offensive performance will be necessary.
Major injuries lead to new running back rotation- With Malapeai (knee surgery- out at least two more weeks), Stepp (ankle surgery- out 3-5 weeks), and Carr (hamstring out 1-3 weeks) out, the Trojans new RB committee will consist of Christon, Quincy Juwinnett (will possibly provide more power running/good pass blocking) and jack-of-all trades veteran Dominic Davis coming back to running back after providing depth in the defensive backfield.
Secondary on the mend- After sitting out for the second time in three games, Olaijah Griffin and Greg Johnson will be back vs. the Buffaloes. Isaac Taylor-Stuart is also healthier after playing the bulk of the Arizona game despite his ankle injury.
Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao tackling much improved- After having issues earlier in the season with completing tackles, free safety Isaiah Pola-Mao has received elite tackling grades the last three games, including 83.1 vs. Arizona, in which he had seven tackles and a half a sack.
Offensive lineman Jackson and Tucker dominate vs. Wildcats- The left side of the Trojans offensive line has been the strength all season and that was very evident against Arizona. Per pro-football focus grades, Left tackle Austin Jackson had a season-high 84.3 overall grade (*80.0+ is a pro-level performance grade) and also allowed no pressures. Left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, allowed no QB pressures with a pro-level 84.8 isolated pass blocking grade. Both of Kenan Christon big runs were off the left side of the line.
Defensive end Caleb Tremblay proving he deserves more opportunities- When the redshirt junior has been given opportunities, he has consistently graded out highly and will most likely start in place of Christian Rector vs. Colorado. He doesn’t necessarily show-up in the box score (he had a 1 tackle last week) but he is constantly winning line of scrimmage battles and pressuring QB’s and disrupting run plays. His 75.0 grade against the Wildcats was one of the best of any USC defensive players. Continued impressive play from Temblay will allow Rector to properly heal from his high ankle sprain. Notre Dame consistently attacked the injured Rector leading to some explosive plays and some wonder if a few of those could have been avoided if Tremblay was on the field. *Rector will probably suit-up and be available if needed. Mid-season freshman All-American Drake Jackson will not travel with the team and is out with a high ankle sprain.
Betting Guide- SC opened as an 11.5 point road favorite and the spread has since jumped to 13.5 despite the Trojans 0-3 road losing five of their last six away from the Coliseum. That said, the Trojans are reversing last year’s abysmal performance ATS. They are currently 4-3 ATS and 3-1 this season as a favorite. The over/under is set at 64 and the total has gone under in 4 of SC’s last five games. The Buffs are 1-4 ATS in their last five games.
Extensive Game Preview- Here is Tom Haire’s extensive game preview courtesy of uscfootball.com
Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits-
*In the last six quarters, USC outscored Notre Dame and Arizona 65-27.
*Only four teams in the country have started more freshmen than the Trojans.
*Freshman cornerback Chris Steele tweaked his knee in Tuesday’s practice and could possibly miss the game.
*Colorado only surrrenders 1.3 per game ranking them No. 20 nationally. The Trojans average 3.0 sacks per game putting them at No. 21 nationally.
*The last Friday game played between the Trojans and Buffaloes was November 13th, 2015. USC won 27-24.