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USC Trojans vs. Utah Utes Preview and Prediction

Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold

Are the wheels coming off for USC? Things look bleak for the Trojans after a 1-2 start. USC has struggled to find any sort of consistency on offense against Power Five teams, scoring just one touchdown and three field goals in losses to Alabama and Stanford.

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It led Trojans head coach Clay Helton to make a change at quarterback on Monday. Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold will get the starting nod this week against Utah in place of junior Max Browne. Darnold has thrown for 136 yards and a pair of touchdowns while completing 63.6 percent of his passes through three games this season.

“It was good to see Sam in the first three games,” Helton told reporters in the weekly Pac-12 teleconference. “Though it was limited, we really got to see his poise and his demeanor in those games and how he moved the ball.”

Utah presents a significant challenge for Darnold and USC. The No. 24 Utes are once again an elite defensive team and thirsty for revenge after falling 42-24 to the Trojans for their first loss a year ago. On offense, Utah features a loaded backfield led by Zack Moss and Troy McCormick and a revived passing attack featuring big-play receiver Tim Patrick.

USC leads the all-time series 10-4. The Trojans lost 24-21 in their most recent trip to Salt Lake City in 2014.

USC at Utah

Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. ET


Spread: Utah -2

Three Things to Watch

1. Sam Darnold versus Utah's defense
Darnold will be thrown into the fire when he faces a Utah team that boasts one of the top defensive teams in the Pac-12 yet again. The Utes rank second in the league in passing defense (158.7 yards per game) and total defense (263.7 ypg) and are third in scoring defense (12.0 ppg).

Utah excels at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in total sacks (15) and sacks per game (5.0). Last week, in a 34-17 victory over San Jose State, Utah tallied 10 sacks against the Spartans. It is highest single-game total for any FBS team so far this season.

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Constant pressure has made it easy for Utah to make a living creating turnovers and setting up short fields for the Ute offense. Marcus Williams, Sunia Tauteoli and Reginald Porter have two interceptions apiece through three games — making them co-leaders in the Pac-12 in that category.

JuJu Smith-Schuster could be a big difference-maker for Darnold in combating pressure. Over the past two seasons, Smith-Schuster has totaled 220 yards and two touchdowns on 14 catches against Utah. 

2. Will another Utah receiver step up?
Tim Patrick has blossomed into a true downfield threat for the Utes. The redshirt senior leads Utah in receptions (14), receiving yards (285), yards per catch (20.4), yards per game (95.0), touchdown catches (4) and all-purpose yards (285). Patrick ranks second among Pac-12 receivers in touchdown catches, receiving yards and receiving yards per game.

“He's got the whole package for a wide receiver,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said, noting Patrick has a perfect combination of size, speed, good hands and a strong work ethic. “It's no surprise to us that he's performing the way he is. We expected it last year. We were hoping for that last year, but he wasn't available.”

The problem for Utah is no other receiver has really emerged yet to take some pressure off Patrick. Troy McCormick and senior tight end Evan Moeai each have six catches apiece. Raelon Singleton, the Utes' no. 2 wide receiver, has 98 yards on just five catches through three games.

Cory Butler-Byrd could become a second downfield threat for Utah now that he is back in action. Butler-Byrd, a senior wide receiver, totaled 66 yards on five receptions against San Jose State in his first game back from a suspension to start the season.

3. Can Utah limit turnovers against USC's defense?
Coughing up the ball has been a huge problem for Utah in recent games with USC. If the Utes want to avoid an upset loss at home, ball security must improve against the Trojans.

Last season, the Utes fell to the Trojans largely because senior quarterback Travis Wilson threw three interceptions to freshman linebacker Cameron Smith. Smith returned one interception 54 yards for a score and nearly returned another, instead setting the Trojans up deep in the red zone for another touchdown.

Two years ago, Utah needed final drive heroics from Wilson to win the game after the Utes twice fumbled the ball on the 1-yard line to wipe out potential scoring drives.

Ball security improved a little bit against San Jose State after Utah turned the ball over six times against BYU two weeks ago. The Spartans forced two turnovers while the Utes engineered three takeaways. Still, the high number of turnovers remains a concern, given Utah's recent history against USC.

Final Analysis

How Utah does against USC will offer a measuring stick for whether or not the Utes can challenge for a Pac-12 South title. The Trojans have enough speed on both sides of the ball to cause trouble for Utah. Still, USC has totaled just 16 points in losses to Alabama and Stanford. Facing another tough defense isn't good news for the Trojans in their quest to salvage their season.

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Prediction: Utah 24, USC 17

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.