USC vs. Colorado Preview
What the Trojans need to do to avoid the trap-game upset
In what is largely a game that could be easily overlooked, irregularly scheduled on a Friday night in November, USC heads to Colorado to battle the Buffaloes, vying for their fourth win in a row.
Colorado is the second-worst team in the Pac-12 by record, yet they have crafted a few stubborn performances— their most recent being their close 31–35 defeat to UCLA.
So, in what is expected to be a 30-degree affair in the high altitudes of Boulder, how can USC repel the elements and extend their winning streak ahead of bigger matchups that lay on their horizon?
Keep it Simply On the Ground
With the announcement that running back Tre Madden would not play in Friday’s game due to a bruised bone in his knee, the Trojans will have to rely on Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis to provide the recently-successful run game in the frigid, pass-repellent atmosphere.
Given that Madden’s contribution to the Trojans’ win over Arizona was basically null and USC still succeeded, the blueprint to once again and establish and thrive in the running game remains.
The tailback who has already taken large strides toward enamoring USC fans with his play and production is Jones, who is coming off a 177-yard, two-touchdown game and is only 148 rushing yards away from Charles White’s freshman rushing record.
“It’s a natural thing he’s got,” said running backs coach Johnny Nansen of Jones. “He never stops his feet in contact, it’s hard to bring him down … it’s going to take a lot of guys to bring him down.”
With Colorado coming into this game as one of the conference’s Top 3 teams in time of possession, USC’s control of the tempo and—equally so—the game as a whole, will be contingent on that fruitful run game to once again be productive.
Madden’s absence certainly gives more direct responsibility to the freshman Jones to show he can be relied upon in short yardage. Third down situations that will be key to convert if the Trojans want to keep the ball away from the Buffaloes’ offense.
Jones is 7-of-9 on third-down conversion carries while Davis is 4-of-9. The former is averaging almost eight yards per attempt overall—third in the Pac-12—and has nine carries of 20 yards or more this season.
This is all to say that if USC chooses to rely on the run game, as they have done to great success recently, the production of Madden-less backfield is still in very good hands.
“Coach Helton’s always had that run the ball, run the ball, throw over your heads, run the ball, play-action pass, whatever it may be,” explained QB Cody Kessler. “I think we’re really finding that offense and guys are sticking to it.”
After amassing 45, 50 and 40 carries in the past three games, the Trojans seem to have a semblance of an offensive identity with the ground game. Maintaining it against Colorado’s 12th-ranked run defense in the conference will put this team on track to win.
Clean Game Gain
One thing you can say undoubtedly that Helton has emphasized and implanted since taking over the helm is mistake-free football.
The Trojans continue their second week atop the Pac-12’s turnover margin rankings, with Kessler not having thrown a pick in the past three games. On the other side of the ball, however, the suddenly-spry defense has recorded at least one turnover or more for the past four games, not to mention a whopping seven interceptions in the previous three games.
Colorado’s inherent weather and atmosphere may make for a mistake-prone game, and one that could be decided or changed by the consequences of a turnover.
For wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, who will play but is still recovering from hand surgery, the weather will force him to be more wary.
“It’s going to be a different environment, very difficult, but I am going to play through it.” — WR Juju Smith-Schuster
Aside from Kessler, who is handling the ball the most, it is the running backs and the wide receivers who will have to hold on to the ball with a death grip of their own.
“Cold weather, that’s pretty tricky, hands are kind of frozen,” pointed out Steven Mitchell Jr. “My cousin Devin Ross, who is a slot receiver as well. I asked him how did he get used to it … We’ll be ready.”
Though turnovers have been the team’s calling card lately, two areas where the Trojans do see a lot of room for improvement is on special teams and their penalties. The team is in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in kickoff returns, punt returns and punting of their own. They also have the third-most penalties per game in the conference.
Coach Nansen talked this week of their sub-optimal performance in the all-important third facet of the game. Nansen said the team needs to improve on coverage, yet though he wishes Adoree’ Jackson would fair catch more punts, the sophomore star disagreed.
“Probably not,” he said when asked if he would fair catch a punt one day before remembering the last time he did so: junior year of high school.
Against a potentially vulnerable opponent, the Trojans could find a way to escape B0ulder unscathed by making this their improvemed performanceon special teams—a part of their game they may desperately need ahead of games against Oregon and UCLA.