Entering the third week of the college football season, the Texas Longhorns (1-1) are a football team in search of themselves. An embarrassing loss at home to an 18-point underdog and a shutout of a team that went 4-8 a year ago has cooled the hype surrounding new head coach Tom Herman and left fans with more questions than answers. Texas has played three different quarterbacks through two games, a fact that speaks to the lack of identity the Horns have exhibited to this point.
Traveling to Los Angeles, the land of Hollywood, Herman hopes to get his own “big break” and upset the University of Southern California Trojans (2-0), currently ranked fourth in the AP Poll. Doing so would allow the Longhorns to enter conference play with a renewed sense of optimism.
Winning their first road game, however, will be no small task for Texas.
Entering the second season under head coach Clay Helton, USC appears to be getting back into championship form with the help of Heisman hopeful Sam Darnold at quarterback.
Darnold helms a pro-style offense that is efficient in its ability to move down the field with quick passing routes and a run game that is capable of not only keeping the Trojans on schedule, but of busting the occasional big play. USC currently leads all other FBS teams with a third down conversion rate of 74 percent due to their ability to stay ahead of the chains.
The Trojans gave their College Football playoff hopes got a shot of life by running roughshod over then AP No. 14 Stanford 42-24 in L.A. last week. Darnold an elite performance as he dissected the Cardinal defense, finding his athletic receivers and throwing them open to the tune of 316 yards and four touchdowns.
That same O-line that ran over Stanford last week will look to open up holes for the Trojan’s talented backs when the Longhorns enter into the Coliseum on Saturday. USC’s Ronald Jones II, aka “RoJo,” is an explosive running back whose ability to change direction will test a Texas run defense that gave up 263 yards on the ground to Maryland in their home opener.
Southern Cal’s defense, which held the prolific Cardinal rushing attack to 170 yards last week, is headed by DC Clancy Pendergast. Pendergast favors an aggressive 2-4-5 defense that enables players to wreak havoc in opposing backfields.
Although they came up with big plays against Stanford, USC’s run D can be ‘feast or famine’ at times: right now they have the 109th ranked run defense after having given up 5.9 yards per carry through two games. The Trojan pass defense, against which QB Keller Chryst turned in a 55.8 QBR, might end up being the best in the Pac 12.
DATE & TIME: SAT, SEP 16 at 7:30 PM CT
WHERE: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Los Angeles, CA)
FORECAST: Sunny, Mid 60s, Clear
STREAM: Fox Sports Go
BETTING LINE: USC -17
Southern Cal will have to prepare to face more than one quarterback this week, as Texas has started two different signal callers in two different games.
Who they see might determine the kind of offense that the Trojans have to defend on Saturday. In their home loss to Maryland, the Horns threw the ball 53 times as the more accurate but slighter Shane Beuchele passed for 375 yards and 2 touchdowns. Texas lined up in four and five wide receiver sets throughout the day and managed only 98 yards on the ground.
Against the Spartans, the Longhorns took the kind of physical, power running approach that Herman has been preaching he wanted since he first stepped on the Forty Acres. With Beuchele out with a bruised shoulder, the dual threat, 230 pound QB Sam Ehlinger stepped up to take the snaps and Texas rushed for 406 yards on their way to a 56-0 victory.
The Longhorns seem to have found an identity as a team that wants to run the ball while taking selective shots downfield, but if Beuchele can play on Saturday, both Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will have some decisions to make.
Do they try to gel last week’s physical approach with the veteran Beuchele’s arm accuracy or go with the true freshman who seemed to get the offense into a rhythm, albeit against inferior competition?
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s ability to get creative with his zone blitzes will be tested against the potent Trojan offense. The Longhorns’ defensive backfield, which has snagged a pick six in each of their two games, will face the most lethal passing attack they’ve seen to date.
The matchup could reveal a lot about how the Horns might fair as they enter into league play against a slew of great passers.
The Horns’ run defense, which is giving up 4.6 yards per carry, is probably the bigger concern and linebackers like Malik Jefferson and Gary Johnson will have to be disciplined and play with instinct to keep the USC backs from getting into the open field.
Keys To The Game For Texas
Win Early Downs Early On D – If Texas can get the Trojans out of rhythm early in this game, they give their offense a chance to build some momentum and force USC to play from behind. Winning first and second downs to get Darnold and company off schedule is crucial for a Longhorn defense that right now is only allowing opponent to convert about one in five third down tries.
Possess The Ball – For the Longhorns to win, this game needs to be a low scoring affair with USC getting in a limited number of plays. If Texas can constantly feed their backs, take care of the ball and take time off the clock, they will be able keep the Southern Cal offense off the field and keep the game manageable. No matter who starts at QB, UT does not want to get into a shootout.
Make A Big Play In The First Half – So far this season, Texas is averaging two non-offensive touchdowns per game. While that statistic will no doubt level off at some point for the Horns, Herman’s bunch needs to be able to take the momentum early in this game if they want to keep this game close and pull off the upset. Making some kind of big play, whether that be a fumble recovery, interception or big return, and the Horns could swing the game in their favor even if it’s not a scoring play.
It would not be all that surprising to see USC, who comes off an emotional revenge game against conference foe Stanford, have a bit of a hangover in front of the home crowd this week. Let us also not forget that Tom Herman has a history of getting the upset as a double-digit underdog and a win in L.A. probably changes the conversation about where his program is at right now.
All in all, however, it seems like these two teams are light years apart in terms of their respective quests to return to the top of the college football world. Texas finds some answers about their offensive bread and butter this week, but even a slow start to the game for USC won’t be able to keep Southern Cal from getting a second half score that covers the spread. I’ll take the Trojans to win and Texas to bring more quarterback questions back home along with all the Disneyland souvenirs.