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No. 19 Colorado at USC: Player Match-ups to Watch

The USC Trojans will play an undefeated Colorado Buffaloes team that has yet to be really tested. These are the player match-ups to watch

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson, West Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina State. These are the only undefeated Power Five schools thorough the young season, and all of them are ranked in the AP Poll. On Saturday, the USC Trojans will have an opportunity to remove the Colorado Buffaloes from this list, and more importantly, make a statement win against the Pac-12 South leader. Here are the player match-ups to watch that will define this game.

Iman Marshall vs. Laviska Shenault Jr.

USC has a habit of playing the Pac-12 players of the previous week. The Trojans faced Stanford the week after JJ Arcega-Whiteside lit up San Diego State for over 200 yards, three touchdowns, and a two-point conversion. USC faced Washington State after Gardner Minshew picked apart Eastern Washington to the tune of 59 points. Before USC’s tilt with Arizona, J.J. Taylor amassed 287 yards on 27 carries, for over 10 yards a carry. Now, Iman Marshall will line up across from Laviska Shenault Jr., the talented wide-receiver who has been Colorado’s best player and perhaps the best receiver in college football so far in this young season. Against Arizona State this past weekend, he went off for 127 yards and four touchdowns on just 13 receptions.

With this performance, Shenault has placed himself in the fringes of the Heisman discussion, with even SI ranking Shenault as fifth in Heisman watch after established candidates Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray, Will Grier, and Dwayne Haskins. Pro Football Focus even has Shenault as the highest graded wide-receiver in the 2018 season. Shenault averages over 30 yards per reception on third downs, which projects dangerously for a Trojan defense that fails to make timely stops.

Though the Trojans have been much maligned through the season, they have done a good job stopping the opposing team’s best offensive weapon. In Week 2 against Stanford, Iman Marshall held Arcega-Whiteside to just 62 yards on four receptions, quickly removing Arcega-Whiteside from the Heisman discussion. In fact, Pro Football Focus has Arcega-Whiteside graded as the fifth best receiver this season. If Marshall’s aggressive and physical brand of coverage limited Arcega-Whiteside, Shenault will need a superhuman effort to take over this game.

Neither Marshall or Shenault can afford to have a bad game. USC relies on Marshall to dominate on an island, and Shenault is is Colorado’s primary source of offense.

Cameron Smith v. Travon McMillian

Shanault is Colorado’s best player and best big play threat, but Colorado’s offense often leans on Travon McMillian to keep the chains moving. The graduate transfer from Virginia Tech has carried the ball 84 times for 528 yards over five games, and averages a solid 6.3 yards per carry. Though many of these rushes are against lesser competition (Colorado has only played three Power Five teams, and UCLA shouldn’t count), it’s evident that McMillian will get his share of touches. Against Arizona State, he rushed 30 times for 136 yards. In the five games he’s suited up in this season, he has had 100 yards or more in four of them.

McMillian be rushing into the teeth of the USC defense, which was putrid against Washington State, but actually disruptive against Arizona. Cameron Smith will be tasked with stopping McMillian. If he can ensure that McMillian is held to minimal gains, Clancy Pendergast will have the luxury of allowing his safeties to play deep to cover Shenault and Steven Montez’s prolific passing attack.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Arizona Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive coordinator Pendergast’s one gap 5-2 scheme favors Smith’s downhill approach to the linebacker position, and his style of play should match up well against McMillian. If Smith and company can effectively shut down McMillian, Colorado will be hard-pressed to get offense going.

JT Daniels v. Nick Fisher

JT Daniels likes to throw the deep ball, at this point that should be evident to all USC fans. In order for USC to compete for a Pac-12 Championship and compete for a New Years’ Six bowl, Daniels must learn to throw the ball with better placement to short and intermediate targets. So far, tight ends and running backs have played almost no part in USC’s passing game, despite Stephen Carr’s obvious receiving skill.

Daniels’ intermediate and short passing game, however, is a work in progress for the future. In order for USC to win this week, he must be able to throw the ball deep to Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. Problem is, Daniels does not shy away from throwing deep into double coverage, and Nick Fisher, Colorado’s senior safety, is arguably Colorado’s best defensive player. Fisher is the defensive quarterback of the Buffaloes’ secondary: it’s his job to have a feel for zone coverage, anticipate the offense, and man center field.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Fisher is a senior with the experience and knowledge to dominate this match-up. If there’s anything he lacks, it’s straight line speed. Fisher will test Daniels’ ability to manipulate the defense through looks and pump fakes. These intricacies to the quarterback position are not Daniels’ strengths. Still, he may win this match-up through sheer arm talent, throwing the ball over the top of Fisher’s coverage.