This week in the Big 12 non-conference pits two blue blood programs against each other in a game that will be chalk full of tradition and pageantry. The No.22 USC Trojans (1-1) travel to Austin, TX to take on the Texas Longhorns (1-1) in a game that will surely go down to the wire once again.
This game is absolutely pivotal for USC’s head coach Clay Helton. In spite of winning a Pac 12 last season, Helton nonetheless needs to prove something in his third season in Los Angeles. Helton comes into 2018 having had some of his most significant losses to graduation and the NFL Draft.
The Longhorns are likewise dealing with some of their own losses to the NFL, but in his second year as the Texas head coach, expectations are rising for Tom Herman. Texas was disappointed in their opener for 2018, where they lost to Maryland 29-34. Last week’s narrow 28-21 win over Tulsa also didn’t inspire much confidence.
Getting a win would go a long way towards pushing either team’s progress in the right direction.
The Longhorns come into this game after a rough opening to their 2018 season. Like 2017, Texas was heavily favored to beat the Maryland Terrapins, but ended up losing that contest. Last week, the Longhorns struggled to put away a Tulsa team that Texas was favored to beat by 20 points.
A big reason for those struggles has been the Longhorns’ offensive inconsistency.
The strength of this team looks to be their ability to run the ball in order to open up passing lanes for starting sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Ehlinger is a strong runner who has the arm strength to get the ball downfield, but he’s struggled to take care of the ball at times.
There are players around Ehlinger with potential. Sophomore running back Danny Young had 373 yards a year ago, but has yet to break out in 2018. Receivers like Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson have had their moments in big games, but haven’t strung together consecutive quality performances.
Defensively, the Longhorns have been mostly solid with the exception of a few big plays. The strength of their defense appears – through two games at least – to be their ability to defend the pass. Aside from having seasoned veterans in the backfield like Kris Boyd and Brandon Jones, Texas has seen some true freshman stand out as well. Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster, two such standouts, currently lead the team in interceptions with one a piece.
There have been some struggles for the Longhorns on defense. Through two games, Texas is still working to develop talent to replace multiple players who departed to the NFL. The Longhorns have had issues with opposing teams’ rushing attacks – against Tulsa, they gave up 5.0 yards per rushing attempt.
Somewhat like the Longhorns, the Trojans have had a rough start to this season. Despite eventually dispatching UNLV 43-21 in their season opener, USC didn’t pull away in that game until late. Against No. 9 Stanford, the Trojans had offensive woes and were only able to put up a field goal in that loss.
USC’s strength offensively is their ability to put the ball in the air. The passing attack is centered on their quarterback, true freshman J.T. Daniels. Helton named Daniels as the heir apparent to the departed Sam Darnold at the beginning of the season. Daniels has the potential to be another big time USC signal caller, but is still somewhat raw as a college quarterback.
He has weapons on the outside, however, and an offensive line that returns four starters. Starting receivers Michael Pittman, Jr. and Tyler Vaughns combined for over 1,200 yards receiving last season. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Daniels’s high school teammate, has already started to stand out as a first year player.
On defense, the Trojans struggled to prevent their first two opponents from running the ball successfully, but they have players who can rush the passer. Edge rushers Porter Gustin and Christian Rector are USC standouts in that regard. Even though they’ve had injuries on the back end, the Trojan secondary will nonetheless be stout, especially with players like cornerback Iman Marshall.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR TEXAS
Utilize The Quarterback Run Game – In order to keep themselves ahead of the chains, the Longhorns need to take advantage of a USC defense that has been struggling to defend against the run. Texas can really only get backs like Tre Watson and Danny Young some open space to run in if there is a legitimate threat of Ehlinger picking up some serious yardage.
Contain Outside Runs Early – USC is probably going to try and run to the edges against Texas as often as possible. If Texas is able to stuff those attempts early, however, it’ll force the Trojans to try a different tactic. Stop the edge plays early on in the game, and the Trojans will be less likely to test that part of the defense again.
Avoid Stringing Together Negative Plays – The best teams in college football have busted plays or big penalties at critical times, but it’ll be important for Texas keep from stringing a bunch of those together at one time. Minimizing penalties should certainly be a high priority in this game, but preventing large swings of momentum will be key for the Longhorns to win here.
There are a some good reasons that USC is considered a Top 25 team. One is Clay Helton and the way his coaching staff can get highly talented players to execute football basics. USC can certainly be a very dangerous team, especially when everything is clicking offensively.
Still, there are some signs that the Trojans have one or two major weaknesses. J.T. Daniels appears to be the quarterback of the future for them, but he may still need some time to develop into that kind of player. The way the run defense for this team is trending is also a major concern.
In that sense, I don’t know that Texas and USC are currently that different. Both of these teams have some problems that could very well prevent them from winning more than eight games this season. Since there’s so much in common between these teams, I will give the nod to the home team favorite in this one, the Texas Longhorns.
I see this as being a fairly low-scoring affair where big special teams plays could be a major factor. Texas wins by three points.