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Texas Longhorns vs. USC Trojans Preview and Prediction

Sam Darnold, USC Trojans Football

Sam Darnold, USC Trojans Football

For the first time since their memorable 2006 Rose Bowl to decide the national championship, USC and Texas are set to meet on the gridiron in Los Angeles for an intriguing non-conference affair. While the buzz and overall importance for this meeting isn’t as high as the last meeting between these two programs, there is plenty at stake for the Longhorns and Trojans on Saturday night.

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USC started its season with a victory over Western Michigan, but coach Clay Helton’s team left a little to be desired. One week later, the Trojans made quite a statement against Stanford. USC’s offense was firing on all cylinders behind quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Ronald Jones, and the defense stepped up after allowing two touchdowns over the first three drives in an impressive 42-24 victory over Stanford. Assuming the Trojans can avoid any major injuries, this team should be in the mix for a spot in the CFB Playoff. Helton’s team is a heavy favorite to win the Pac-12 South and nothing through the first two weeks has altered that preseason prediction. Additionally, the schedule is manageable the rest of the way. USC has to play Washington State and Notre Dame on the road but games against Utah, UCLA and Utah take place in Los Angeles.

On the other sideline, Texas is still smarting from its Week 1 loss to Maryland. New coach Tom Herman was considered by many to be the top hire for 2017, and he inherited a program with 16 returning starters and a handful of promising young players. Additionally, the hire of Todd Orlando as coordinator was expected to address a defense that surrendered 31.5 points per game last fall. But so far, Texas is still looking for answers on both sides of the ball and the preseason expectations for this program may have been a little too high. Regardless of the expectations, the talent is there for the Longhorns to improve over the course of the season. And most importantly for Herman, Big 12 play doesn’t start until Sept. 28 – so the conference title game is still a possibility.

USC holds a 4-1 series edge over Texas. The Longhorns won the last matchup in 2006, but these two teams have not played in a regular season game since 1967.

Texas at USC

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 16 at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: USC -15.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Texas Quarterbacks

Texas has played three different players at quarterback this season, and it’s likely coach Tom Herman could use all three on Saturday night. Sophomore Sam Buechele completed 34 of 52 passes for 375 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Maryland. However, a shoulder injury prevented Buechele from playing against San Jose State last Saturday, opening the door for true freshman Sam Ehlinger and junior Jerrod Heard to take snaps under center. Ehlinger was the top recruit in Texas’ 2017 signing class and had a solid debut against the Spartans, connecting on 15 of 27 passes for 222 yards and one touchdown. While Heard has attempted two passes and attempted 159 in 2015, he’s utilized as more of a change-of-pace option or a running threat. Heard has 43 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries this season.

Texas hasn’t tipped its hand as to which of the three quarterbacks will start on Saturday night. However, if Buechele is 100 percent, the safe bet is to assume he gets the start over Ehlinger. But if Buechele struggles or is ineffective, Herman won’t hesitate to let Ehlinger have a chance to guide the offense. While there are issues to address and some youth working their way into major roles, the Longhorns averaged 5.6 yards per play versus Maryland posted 7.1 against San Jose State.

Whether it’s Buechele, Ehlinger or Heard under center, can Texas get enough consistency or big plays out of its quarterback position in order to win?

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 3

2. USC’s Defensive Front and Texas’ Rushing Attack

USC’s defense entered 2017 looking to replace a few key cogs from last year’s group. Top cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and standout defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu departed from a unit that ranked second in the Pac-12 in fewest points allowed per game (conference-only matchups).

Through two games, it’s clear coordinator Clancy Pendergast is still molding this group. USC is giving up 27.5 points per game, allowing 5.6 yards per play and has been vulnerable to the run (216.5 rushing yards per contest). However, those defensive concerns are mitigated by an explosive offense capable of simply outscoring every team on the schedule. Linebacker Cameron Smith (14 stops) and lineman Rasheem Greene (12 tackles) lead the way in the front seven, but this group won’t have linebacker Porter Gustin available on Saturday night due to injury.

While Gustin is unable to go, this matchup favors USC. Texas lost guard Patrick Hudson and tackle Elijah Rodriguez due to injuries up front, and the line has struggled at times through the first two games. The Longhorns have given up five sacks and averaged only 3.2 yards per carry in the opener against Maryland. With the uncertainty at quarterback, establishing a run is critical for Herman and coordinator Tim Beck. Chris Warren (197 yards), Kyle Porter (93 yards) and Heard could each see their share of carries on Saturday night. With an explosive USC offense on the other side, controlling the line of scrimmage and establishing the run are musts if Texas wants to pull the upset.

Will USC’s defensive front stuff the run and force the Longhorns into long-yardage situations? Or will Herman and the Texas offense find running room similar to Stanford and San Diego State and keep the Trojans’ offense on the sidelines?

3. USC’s Offense Against Texas’ Defense

After a slow start and a fast finish in Week 1 against Western Michigan, USC’s offense shredded Stanford last Saturday. The Trojans gashed the Cardinal for 307 yards on the ground and 316 through the air. USC averaged a healthy 8.4 yards per play, converted 10 of 12 third-down attempts and punted only once.

It’s no secret the leader for this unit is sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. USC is 11-1 since Darnold took over as the starter early in the 2016 campaign and has scored 40 or more points in eight out of the last 11 games. Darnold has tossed four picks this year, but he’s completing 74.6 percent of his throws and has thrown for 605 yards on 44 completions. Deontay Burnett (16) and Steven Mitchell (eight) are the top targets for Darnold, as both players average at least 16 yards per catch.

As if having one of the nation’s best quarterbacks wasn’t enough, USC has an emerging tandem of talent at running back. Ronald Jones eclipsed 1,000 yards last season and was expected to challenge for All-America honors in 2017. The junior is well on his way to doing so after rushing for 275 yards and five touchdowns through the first two games. Additionally, freshman Stephen Carr has been a breakout star by rushing for 188 yards and two scores on just 18 carries.

Needless to say, Texas is going to have its hands full trying to slow down USC’s offense. The Longhorns pitched a shutout against San Jose State after giving up 41 to Maryland in the opener. However, this defense has been vulnerable against the run, has just two sacks and has allowed five plays of 40 yards or more. After a rough debut against Maryland, all eyes will be on Orlando on Saturday night. Can the defense deliver a better performance than it did in the opener and find a way to slow down the dynamic USC attack?

Final Analysis

Even after USC’s impressive win over Stanford, the spread on this game seems a little high. Of course, it’s possible the Trojans are just as dominant as they showed against the Cardinal, and the Longhorns are just as suspect on defense as they showed in the opener against Maryland. Regardless of the final spread, USC is the better team. The Trojans have too much firepower on offense, and the defense will have its moments against a Texas offense with uncertainty at quarterback. Texas coach Tom Herman seems to thrive in the underdog role. However, it’s tough to see the Longhorns pulling this one off in Los Angeles.