Coming off a heart-wrenching 30-27 overtime loss to BYU, the Trojans face their toughest test of the season thus far when they play No. 10 Utah on Friday. After a nearly flawless offensive explosion against Stanford in a week 2 matchup, Kedon Slovis came crashing back to Earth against the Cougars in Provo. With 3 total interceptions including a pick that fell off of Drake London’s hands to seal the defeat in overtime, Slovis looks to bounce back against an imposing Utah defense. Additionally, the Trojan’s defense had a rough outing against the Cougars — struggling to tackle securely while letting Zach Wilson scramble around the pocket and make spectacular plays (to the point where Johnny Manziel comparisons were dropped several times throughout the broadcast). Keeping that in mind, the Trojans return home to the Coliseum and look to regroup and execute against an excellent Utah team while on short rest. If the squad hopes to get the job done here are 3 Utah players to key in on Friday night.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley
Another week another mobile quarterback for the USC defense to chase after. Fresno State’s Jorge Reyna exposed some of those issues for the Trojan defense and Zach Wilson really drove the point home in the fourth quarter and overtime last week. Clancy Pendergast’s talented defensive line has been highly aggressive getting after the quarterback thus far, but that worked against them in Provo when Wilson stepped up or scrambled out of the pocket to evade pressure. Tyler Huntley has the ability to give the defense fits in the same way, rushing for 99 yards on the ground and a touchdown thus far this season. Moreover, the senior QB has been looking increasingly comfortable in the passing game every week. Starting with a 13 of 16 performance for 106 yards against BYU week 1, he lit up Idaho State for 282 yards and 3 touchdowns on only 19 attempts this past week. Granted, the level of competition drastically decreased — which could be an explanation for Huntley’s improved performance — but his specific set of skills has proven problematic for USC time and time again. Adding to Huntley’s natural ability is the fact that his offensive line has yet to give up a sack this season. However, if Huntley can not get the air attack going he does have the Pac-12’s leading rusher in Zach Moss to lean on. With 373 yards rushing and 4 TDs already, Moss is a lethal weapon that Utah will likely look to feed throughout the game. Despite that, the Trojan defense has allowed an average of 78 yards to running backs this year and has yet to have a 100-yard rusher (although Ty’Son Williams was only a yard short). But if there is a back to break that trend it would be the talented Moss. Consider this prediction a bet that Huntley will give the Trojans more trouble Friday night though.
Defensive Lineman Bradlee Anae
One of the biggest components of the vaunted Utah defense is its stud senior defensive end Bradlee Anae. Anae is tied for the Pac-12 lead in sacks with 3, all of which coming in a monster performance against Northern Illinois. His pedigree speaks for itself as a first team All-Pac-12 member last season with a league leading 8 sacks. In the first quarter against BYU last week, Kedon Slovis took a sack and two plays later proceeded to predetermine a read that was picked off by Patrick Wilgar deep in USC territory. It was evident that he was shaken up after the sack, and the pressure appeared to throw him off his game. Anae will be leading a much more potent defensive line and he is positioned to have a strong game against a Trojan offensive line that struggled to contain Cougar defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga. If Anae can turn the heat up on Slovis, returning home to the Coliseum might not be enough for the freshman to get back on track. The problem for the Trojans is that if they look to double team Anae the Utes have other talented playmakers like sophomore linebacker Devon Lloyd who can get after the quarterback as well. Lloyd has 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in the last two weeks games alone and has proven to be a difference maker for the front seven as well.
Defensive Back Julian Blackmon
A two time All-Pac-12 cornerback converted into a safety for his senior year, Julian Blackmon has been a leader for the talented Ute secondary. Blackmon has gotten off to a hot start this season with two interceptions — one of which being a 39 yard pick six off of Zach Wilson in week one. Aside from his stellar coverage ability, Blackmon also boasts superb tackling ability with 13 total tackles (9 of which coming in a single game against Northern Illinois). Kedon Slovis struggled with telegraphing his passes against the Cougars, leading to 2 of his 3 interceptions. Playing a Utah defense that can bring pressure, Slovis will be forced into snap decisions with the ball on Friday. With Blackmon lurking at the safety spot, Slovis could have another difficult day in terms of turnovers. Covering the Trojan’s fantastic receivering corp has been a task too tall for any of the teams they have played thus far, but Blackmon and fellow All-Pac-12 defensive back Jaylon Johnson have the ability to do so.