USC’s bizarre season continued against the Utes at the Coliseum in week 4, with 3rd-string quarterback Matt Fink leading the Trojans to an upset victory over the 10th ranked team in the nation. After starting quarterback Kedon Slovis took a big shot and exited the game to undergo concussion protocol, Matt Fink stepped up in relief and led the explosive pass game without missing a beat. Fink ended the game with a stellar 351 yards and 3 TDs while completing 21 of 30 attempts. The elite Trojan receiving corp — led by Michael Pittman’s star making performance — made big plays all night and established that the man under center might not matter much in Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense. Despite having negative rushing yardage for practically the entire game, the offense got the job done through the air and the defensive line made life tough on the Utes all night. Going into their first Pac-12 road game against a talented No. 17 Washington team, a depleted Trojan squad will have to be firing on all cylinders to get the W. With Georgia transfer Jacob Eason putting together a strong start to the season and generating draft buzz, it will be a tall task to be sure. Here are 3 keys to the game for the Trojans to get the win in Seattle on Saturday.
Find Ways to Support Matt Fink
After entering the transfer portal and nearly leaving earlier this summer, redshirt-junior Matt Fink found himself playing in a pivotal matchup against ranked Utah. To his credit, he excelled given the opportunity — extending plays with his mobility and finding his star receivers deep time and time again. That being said, Fink had ample support in his debut this season as he was not asked to beat the stellar Utah defense on his own. Michael Pittman lit up the talented Ute secondary all night, exploding for 232 yards on 10 receptions and a touchdown. Many of Fink’s deep completions were the result of throwing up a pass to Pittman (sometimes in double coverage) and letting his talented pass catcher make a play. Amon Ra-St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns should not be overlooked either with 68 and 49 yards respectively and a touchdown each.
If the Trojans hope to beat Washington in a hostile road environment, a key will be continuing to support Fink and putting him in positions to succeed. That means the receiving corp has to continue its outstanding performance against a talented Washington secondary that has only conceded a single passing touchdown all season. However, as the Utes found out last week, there might not be a secondary in the conference up to the task of containing these receivers.
Moreover, the run game needs to be established for the offense to lean on when Fink is limited in the aerial attack. The Trojans had a net 28 yards of offense gained on the ground against Utah, with the majority of that yardage coming in the 4th quarter when they were looking to kill clock. Tailback Stephen Carr was held to -16 yards and Vavae Malepaei had only 39 yards on 11 carries. Much of the blame lies on the shoulders of the offense line who have been ineffective in the last two games blocking for the run. Against Washington that trend needs to change as controlling the pace of the game of the road will be key.
Cover for Injuries in the Secondary
Unfortunately, Kedon Slovis was not the only starter lost last week. After an unbelievable performance in which he had 14 tackles and recorded half a sack, starting safety Talanoa Hufanga was ruled out for the game against Washington as he undergoes concussion protocol. Another stud Trojan defensive back in Olaijah Griffin will also be missing as he suffers from back spasms. Redshirt freshman Chase Williams will start in Hufanga’s place and he — as well as the rest of the secondary — has to play lights out to make up for the loss of his talented teammates. This is particularly true against Jacob Eason, likely the most talented signal caller the Trojans have faced so far. All due respect to Tyler Huntley, Zach Wilson and the rest, Jacob Eason has been climbing up draft boards due to his outstanding performance for the Huskies so far. Excluding a stinker against a ranked Cal team, Eason has put great stats with 1063 yards and 10 TDs against 2 INTs on the season thus far. He has impressive arm talent and it will take all that the banged up Trojan secondary has to contain the Washington aerial attack.
Overcome Clay Helton’s Road Woes
It is no secret that Clay Helton has had drastically different results on the road versus at home. With a 19-3 record at the Coliseum and only a 12-15 record on the road, the disparity in home and away games is baffling. It was evident against BYU that this Trojan squad suffers from the same struggles as past iterations. Playing a less talented opponent, the Trojans looked gassed and lacked energy when things got difficult after Slovis threw a pick after a nearly flawless opening drive the series before. The Cougars managed to hang on and the Trojans’ lack of killer instinct and tendency to make costly mistakes down the stretch led to an overtime loss that was entirely avoidable. This time around, the opponent is more talented and USC’s roster is far less healthy than it was entering the BYU game. Washington has the talent to punish the Trojans early and often if they come out sluggish or sloppy on the road. It is imperative that Helton rallies his troops and gets them prepared physically and mentally for this pivotal road game. With an even tougher test away against Notre Dame next week, Helton’s job may very well rely on a win Saturday.