The 2015 season is slowly getting away from USC in a big way. After losing by 10 points to rival Notre Dame, the Trojans return home to welcome the Pac-12 South leaders and the No. 3-ranked Utah Utes to the Coliseum. With a Halloween road game against the explosive Cal Bears next week, the Trojans could find themselves fighting to remain bowl eligible before too much longer.
Whether it was Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Steve Sarkisian or Clay Helton, every USC coach since Pete Carroll has found a way to win the press conferences during the week. Okay, maybe not so much with Lane Kiffin but the others knew how to work a crowd. The problem came when the coaches were asked to win actual games. The platitudes are there during the week, but the performances to back them up are nowhere to be found come game time.
After losing a very winnable game against Notre Dame in a disastrous fashion, interim head coach Helton will be under a microscope moving forward. A 2:1 pass-to-run ratio had the Trojans relying on quarterback Cody Kessler to win them the game late against Notre Dame. With 3:35 on the clock and down by 10, the Trojans began a drive at their own 1-yard line. The Trojans would finally cross the 50 with just under 50 seconds remaining in the game, they never even came close to scoring.
With a seven-point lead and significant advantage in total offensive yards and plays, the Trojans would post fewer than 90 yards in the quarter, turn the ball over twice, accumulate negative (-6) rushing yards, and bafflingly threw the ball on every, single first down play they had in the quarter. USC began the fourth quarter with a lead and 156 rushing yards. They ended the game with a loss and 150 rushing yards. Why Helton chose not to grind down the clock against a defense allowing 6.5 yards per carry is something he will have to explain if he has any real hope of landing the job on a more permanent basis.
With USC's College Football Playoff hopes dashed, a win over a Utah team that some experts feel are the No. 1 team in the country would go a long way toward building confidence in his ability to motivate this team moving forward. For all the bravado and player love shown toward Orgeron, the team's performances against Notre Dame and UCLA were less than impressive. Helton is already sitting behind the eight ball after Saturday, a loss to Utah could very well eliminate him from consideration before the season is over.
College Football Podcast: Week 8 Preview
Utah at USC
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: USC -3
Three Things to Watch
1. USC's ability to contain Britain Covey
The Trojans have been erratic on special teams in 2015. Several opponents have enjoyed prime field position to start drives and Notre Dame was no exception. The Irish's average starting field position against the Trojan defense was their own 37-yard line. For most of the game, the Irish started near midfield. If Utah kick returner Britain Covey is allowed to run wild in special teams and coverage, the Utes could put this game out of reach before USC's offense even has time to fail on its first third down of the game.
Covey has returned one punt for a touchdown already and he's No. 20 in the nation in yards per punt return. On offense, Covey is second on the team in receptions (22) and receiving yards (216). Given USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's tendency to surrender the middle of the field, Covey could enjoy the finest game of his young Ute career out of the slot. Expect the Utes to use running back Devontae Booker similar to how Notre Dame used C.J. Prosise, who had a field day against the Trojans' defense.
Covey may not be the biggest or strongest guy on the field, but he's extremely quick, very intelligent, and has all of the tools to beat you from anywhere on the field. It would be the least surprising thing in the world to see him put up over 100 yards of offense against the Trojans.
2. Avoiding costly self-inflicted mistakes... maybe
This still isn't coming out of the "Things to Watch For" section until the Trojans prove that they're capable of limiting mistakes. Ten penalties against Notre Dame for a total of 105 yards moved the Trojans to No. 110 in the nation in penalty yards per game. The Trojans have 45 flags on the year, averaging 7.5 penalties per game. Their average penalty yardage per game has become more offensive as the year progresses, they're now spotting their opponents 72.8 free yards a game. At some point, this trend has to stop
USC's opponents have committed 17 fewer penalties and only average around 4.7 flags a game. They're also only giving up 46 yards a game via penalties, which means the Trojans are still consistently losing the discipline battle. They're No. 115 in the country in drawing penalties and No. 97 in the nation in committing them (per game), as undisciplined play has cost them in critical situations against Stanford, Washington, and Notre Dame. All of them ended up being losses. The Trojans excel at beating themselves and opposing coaches now notice. An opposing defensive coordinator can almost count on USC's offense bailing him out after his defense gives up a huge play. The frequency with which big plays are called back to the offensive line has gotten out of hand.
3. USC's ability to generate a pass rush
USC's opponents are averaging 6.8 yards per attempt when they drop back to pass and 11.8 yards per completion. Travis Wilson is averaging 7.15 yards per attempt and has completed 67.9 percent of his attempts. As a team, the Utes lead the Pac-12 in sacks allowed, giving up only 52 yards on seven sacks.
The Trojans are currently tied with Colorado in total sacks by a team. The Trojans' 86 total sack yards come 20 yards short of Washington State's 106 total yards. Yep, the Trojans are generating less of a presence in the backfield than the Cougars or the Buffaloes. With the Utes sitting at No. 2 in the conference in total time of possession and the Trojans sitting at No. 11, getting in Wilson's face will be key to any success on defense.
USC pundits and national experts have been extremely critical of the Trojan offensive line the past couple of games and Utah's defense is built to expose teams unable to generate a rush or defend the middle of the field. Of the five players on USC with the most sacks in '15, three of them do not play on the defensive line and one of them plays in the defensive backfield. Only about a third of USC's total sacks are coming from the defensive line and only about a quarter of their sack yardage comes from the defensive line.
The Trojans need their playmakers to come up big against the Utes. Turnovers, sacks, and quarterback hurries will come at a premium in this game. The Trojans are facing an uphill battle if they lose the majority of those battles. Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is known for getting after opposing quarterbacks, forcing opponents into mistakes, and allowing teams to beat themselves. The Trojans will need to find a way to flip this script if they plan to bring Utah's title hopes crashing back down to earth.
The Trojans' biggest weakness also is the reason they are going to lose this game big. Utah QB Travis Wilson excels when given time to choose his targets or pick up the first down with his legs. Last week, Wilson proved himself capable of running elements of the option. When you add in the fact that he was already a run-pass threat, intelligent option play just about makes him USC's worst nightmare. While it's unlikely that Utah suddenly switches to an option-based attack, Wilson's ability to run seemingly any offensive system gives him myriad methods of picking apart a very suspect USC defense under defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
The Trojans routinely beat themselves when they don't have to and the Utes are capable of punishing mistakes as well as anyone in the country. They average 3.2 turnovers per game, that's good enough for No. 4 in the country. Utah State lead the nation in turnovers per game at 3.2, so the state of Utah in general is enjoying a great season for punishing opponent's mistakes. Both the Utes and Trojans average about 1.2 turnovers per game, so it will come down to who can take protect the ball. That's been a problem for Kessler against top defenses.
Prediction: Utah 49, USC 17
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for Reign Of Troy, USC’s FanSided affiliate. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.