Here are the top keys for the Trojans' game on Saturday night at a hostile MUSS environment against a 5-1, upstart Utah squad battling for Pac-12 South supremacy.
USC's Passing Game Can Beat The Pass Rush
While the Utah Utes lead the Pac-12 in sacks, 33 to be exact, led by the pass-rushing efforts of Nate Orchard, Cody Kessler's passing attack can beat the heat of an intense pass rush. Priding themselves on getting the ball out quickly, the Trojans' quick-striking approach could limit the heavy assault coming from four-and-five man fronts.
Obviously fitting the ball in tight windows will be difficult, especially against a physical Utes' secondary. But Kessler has finally started to push the ball deep down field which could open up more one-on-one opportunities for Nelson Agholor to pick apart the defense over the middle, similar to his nine-catch performance against Stanford.
Utah Struggles To Throw The Football
While the Trojans' defense is hardly perfect, the run defense is allowing less than 100 yards per game ever since the 453-yard debacle against the Boston College Eagles. Led by the free-flowing play of Su'a Cravens, the Trojans' can match the physicality of the Utes' run-first offense and can force this team into third-and-long situations.
Antwaun Woods, Leonard Williams and company will have to be stout on the defensive line, but the Trojans have shown they can slow down power running games. If/When Utah switches to option-threat Kendal Thompson at the quarterback position things could change, but Utah starting Travis Wilson may actually be the best option for USC's defense to succeed.
JuJu Smith Could Be The Difference Maker
The Trojans have relied upon Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen to carry the load offensively this season, but the on-and-off output from JuJu Smith could translate USC's offense into a high-scoring machine. Smith is a big-play wideout, averaging over 20 yards per reception, who could really take advantage of added shots downfield from Cody Kessler.
Smith is averaging just four catches per game, but if USC wants to take advantage of an aggresive Utah defense loading the box to slow down the running game, the Trojans can attack deep with JuJu Smith. He has shown a great ability to uncover on the deep ball and the Utah secondary could be in for a challenge defending a physical, speedy, smart wideout. Sean Mannion threw for 272 yards against this defense, so expect the Trojans to do much the same, if not more.
USC Can Close The Special Teams' Gap
While the combination of rugby punter Tom Hackett and clutch kicker "Automatic Andy" Phillips have been special, the altitude of Salt Lake City may even the playing field for the USC Trojans. Alex Wood has proven to be an improved option on the kickoffs, and the leg of Andre Heidari (who has nailed multiple 50-yard kicks in his career) could be aided by the altitude and "us against the world" mentality that comes from kicking on the road against stiff competition.
Kris Albarado told me in practice that he has really taken pride in focusing on his drops for this week and believes that the way Utah plays will really favor his coffin corner punts and directional kicks away from the dangerous Kaelin Clay. If USC can step up in this department, the Utes' biggest advantage will fall right off the table.