USC can make a huge statement about its Pac-12 title chances when the Trojans visit Utah on Saturday.
The No. 7 Trojans (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12) have flourished in Lincoln Riley's first season. USC is as electric as advertised on offense. Defensively, the Trojans are proving they also have teeth. A 30-14 victory over Washington State marked the second time in three weeks — and third time this season — that USC held an opponent to 14 points. The Trojans have opened a season with six straight wins for the first time since 2006.
The No. 20 Utes (4-2, 2-1) got blindsided by a potent UCLA offense in their 38-24 loss to the Bruins last weekend. Utah's normally stout run defense got gashed for 203 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Bruins averaged 5.3 yards per carry — the most the Utes surrendered since yielding 7.3 in the season opener against Florida. It helped UCLA score on its first four drives of the second half and pull away from Utah.
USC leads Utah 13-7 in the all-time series. The Utes won last year, prevailing 42-26 in Los Angeles, and have won three of their last four games in Salt Lake City against the Trojans.
No. 7 USC at No. 20 Utah
When USC Has the Ball
Utah's struggles at stopping the run come at a terrible time. USC running back Travis Dye is fresh off his best performance of the season: a season-high 149 yards and a touchdown on a season-high 28 carries against Washington State. It was his fourth 100-yard game of the season and the 11th of his career. Dye has scored a rushing touchdown in five consecutive games and currently ranks second in the Pac-12 in total rushing yards (571) and rushing yards per game (95.2).
Quarterback Caleb Williams had a quiet game by his standards against Washington State, throwing for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Still, Williams is quite capable of slinging the ball around and making big plays through the air. He had 300-yard games against Stanford and Arizona State earlier this season and has passed for 1,590 yards and 14 touchdowns through six games. Williams has completed 65 percent of his pass attempts this season, although he had a 44 percent rate against Oregon State and only 52 percent against Washington State.
Williams isn't lacking for reliable targets downfield. Jordan Addison has a team-high 479 yards and six touchdowns on 32 catches midway through the season. Mario Williams is not far behind with 348 yards and four scores. Brenden Rice and Tahj Washington have both had shining moments as well. Shutting down all four receivers is nearly impossible for any defense.
When Utah Has the Ball
The Utes are starting to adjust to tight end Brant Kuithe's absence, but progress remains to be made. Cameron Rising threw for 287 yards against UCLA and completed 72 percent of his passes. He did a good job spreading the ball around. Eight different receivers caught at least one pass. But Rising also threw an interception and had a fourth-down fumble. Both turnovers set up critical touchdowns by the Bruins.
Utah will do better if it can get a full game out of Tavion Thomas in the backfield. Thomas started strong against UCLA, but his carries diminished as the game progressed because his fitness level wasn't where it needed to be. He finished with 91 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. While Rising and Micah Bernard are both solid running threats, Utah's offense works best when Thomas is churning out 100-yard games.
Devaughn Vele has emerged as Rising's top target over the past three games. In that stretch, he has piled up 244 yards and a touchdown on 19 catches. Makai Cope, Money Parks, and Jaylen Dixon have all shown flashes. Utah needs one or more to step up and become a consistent threat to complement Vele — especially with defenses focusing more attention on tight end Dalton Kincaid these days.
USC is a top-10 team midway through the season largely because the Trojans are so balanced. Defensively, they lead the Pac-12 with 4.0 sacks per game. Offensively, they are willing and able to run to complement their potent passing attack. Utah is a deeply talented team on both sides of the ball as well. But the Utes have serious defensive flaws that were exposed by UCLA. USC has an equal ability to exploit those flaws and snag a valuable road win over the defending Pac-12 champion.
Prediction: USC 35, Utah 31
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– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
*Price as of publication.