Three keys for USC to beat Utah

Fixing past mistakes will be crucial for the Trojans to beat the Utes.

A photo of freshman tight end Michael Trigg going up to catch a pass in a white jersey last week against Colorado.

The matchup between USC and Utah is often a close battle and Saturday’s game should be no different. The Utes hold a record of 2-2 on the season with losses to San Diego State and rival No. 10 BYU. The Trojans are 3-2 and looking to bounce back from two straight home losses in Pac-12 play.

Although not the highly-ranked matchup fans of both teams were expecting heading into the season, the bout should still be entertaining and will heavily impact the Pac-12 South race. The Utes are in control of their own destiny with a 1-0 record in Pac-12 play while the Trojans are 2-2 in conference play and will need some help to secure a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

The Trojans have won three of the last four meetings between the two teams, but beating Utah will be no easy feat this time around. Here are three keys to USC defeating the Utes:

Limiting penalties

Flags have been an issue at USC for years and the midseason coaching change did not do much to remedy the situation; the team accumulated 98 penalty yards in the loss to Oregon State and 125 in the win over Colorado. The Buffaloes may not have been able to take advantage of USC’s miscues, but the Utes may be capable of capitalizing on the penalties.

Interim head coach Donte Williams preached accountability as he made the transition into his new role and he recently introduced new coaching methods to decrease penalties. Some of his new strategies were having referees present at practice and making each player and coach run 12 sprints after Tuesday’s practice, one for each penalty the team had against Colorado. Whether these strategies will decrease USC’s penalties is unclear but the Trojans will need to see improvement if they are to defeat the Utes.

Stopping Utah’s running game

On paper, one of USC’s strongest position groups is its defensive line. That has not been the case at home recently, since both Stanford and Oregon State ran the ball at will against the Trojans, with Stanford’s junior running back Nathaniel Peat rushing for 115 yards and Oregon State’s redshirt junior running back B.J. Baylor rushing for 158 yards. Peat’s performance was especially concerning for USC due to an 87-yard touchdown run in the opening minutes of the game.

Utah’s running backs are as capable as any group of running backs USC has faced so far. The Utes have three running backs with a 100-yard rushing game and sophomore quarterback Cameron Rising is fairly mobile. The defensive line’s performance will need to take a step up to prevent another rushing onslaught.

Spreading the ball to different receivers

USC has had difficulty getting the football to a variety of wide receivers, and Utah’s strong pass defense will have success against the Trojans if it can shut down just one man: junior Drake London. London has been the one consistent receiver for the Trojans this season and that will surely need to change for USC to become one of the top teams in the Pac-12. Freshman tight end Michael Trigg and sophomore receiver Gary Bryant Jr. have had breakout games, but junior quarterback Kedon Slovis has not had a consistently reliable second option.

Finding a solid second option will do more than lift the Trojans over the Utes. Should Trigg or Bryant step up as another go-to receiver for Slovis, the team can build on that connection during the bye week ahead of the rivalry game against No. 14 Notre Dame. Having a pristine game plan will be pivotal in beating the Irish, and the most recent film the team will have to build that game plan from will be the Utah game’s tape.

The Trojans will face Utah at the Coliseum at 5 p.m. on Saturday.