Coming off a 13-day hiatus due to a COVID-19 postponement against Cal, the USC Trojans football team will return to action this weekend against archrival UCLA at the Coliseum.
While the rivalry serves as a motivating factor in and of itself for both teams, this game has major implications for the Trojans beyond bragging rights. With only three games remaining this season, USC must go at least 2-1 in order to secure a .500 record for the season and become bowl eligible.
For the Trojans, this game also has major significance for the future of the program. It will be freshman Jaxson Dart’s first career start at quarterback. Junior Kedon Slovis had started every game this season but will miss Saturday’s matchup due to a leg injury. Dart has already made appearances in three games this season, splitting snaps with Slovis over the previous two, but he will now have his first opportunity to lead the team offensively for a full 60 minutes.
In his limited role two weeks ago against Arizona State, Dart struggled for the first time this year, completing just 8-of-17 passes for 89 yards, along with one interception and one rushing touchdown. However, having two full weeks to prepare as the starter gave him an opportunity to develop a greater rapport with his receivers and take control of his team offensively. Additionally, he will have more reps in the game to work through any issues that could arise, in order to build his rhythm as opposed to being pulled at the first sign of trouble.
Effective quarterback play will be crucial as the Trojan offense continues to navigate life without junior receiver Drake London. USC struggled to establish its run game against ASU, averaging less than 3.5 yards per carry, and the Bruins’ run defense has been stout this year. The UCLA defense has allowed 124 yards on the ground per game, the second fewest in the Pac-12.
Even without London, the key to offensive success will be in the passing game, as UCLA has surrendered more passing yards per game than any team in the conference, and is bottom 20 in the FBS in that category. Its secondary has been especially susceptible to big plays down the field over the course of the season.
The Trojans should be well-equipped to attack that deficiency, as they are the only team in the Pac-12 that averages more than 300 passing yards per game. Dart is also a quarterback with enormous potential for big plays; he had six passes over 20 yards in his season debut against Washington State.
“They still have a lot of good players back there,” head coach Donte Williams said about the Bruins’ secondary. “They ask those guys to go out there on islands and play man-to-man, so they make their fair share of plays too … Everybody sees guys giving up yards and thinks it’s the secondary, but it could be a backer or a D-end covering somebody, so it adds up. It’s not just always on the secondary.”
A strong passing attack will require receivers such as sophomore Gary Bryant Jr. and redshirt sophomore Tahj Washington to step into bigger roles, get open down the field and make plays on the ball. Dart needs to have built enough confidence in his teammates to give them the necessary opportunities to make big plays. The past two weeks of practice gave Dart plenty of opportunities to work with his pass catchers and create that trust.
The Bruins’ strategy to stop the Trojans’ passing attack will likely come in the form of a variety of blitz packages. Defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro likes to send extra players to rush the quarterback in key moments to disrupt opponents’ passing games. Azzinaro’s unit has recorded 19 sacks this season, but beyond that, many of their opponents’ interceptions have come from quarterbacks making poor decisions while under duress. It is probable that the UCLA game plan will be similar this week, since Dart is fairly inexperienced and the Trojan offensive line has struggled at points this season.
“It’s all about being comfortable,” Williams said about how his quarterback can handle the blitz this weekend. “It’s all about him going out and trusting the guys on the field with him, and them trusting him. He’s going to have to make the right reads and kind of sight unseen and adjust to things they do. In this particular game both teams always have a couple of things that maybe they haven’t shown all year … There’ll be some new things out there, and it’s all about how he adjusts and how the guys on the field adjust with him.”
On the other side of the ball, the Bruins have multiple running threats Both of their main running backs, junior Zach Charbonnet and redshirt senior Brittain Brown, are in the top ten in the Pac-12 in yards per game. Brown is also tied for second in the conference in yards per carry with six. Both of these tailbacks are old school downhill runners. They find holes in the offensive line quickly, attack them head-on and run downhill for extra yardage. They are reliable in short-yardage situations, and Charbonnet is especially good at breaking off big plays when only a few yards are needed.
If those two talented backs were not enough of a handful for USC to deal with, it will also have to account for senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The UCLA signal-caller is having another strong year under center, completing 60.3% of his passes for 1,896 yards and 14 touchdowns. He is also protecting the football well, with only four interceptions.
Thompson-Robinson also serves as a major dual-threat and is having a career season running the football. He currently has 463 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns on the season, both career highs. He is 13th in the entire conference in rushing yards per game and second among quarterbacks.
The Bruins will have designed runs to the outside for him, where he is very elusive and savvy carrying the ball. He knows how to make defenders miss in space; the USC tackling must be very solid to minimize his impact on those plays. Even on passing plays, Thompson-Robinson is more than willing to take off up the middle if there is a big enough hole in front of him, and rip off an easy gain for a first down. The Trojans’ defense must account for this possibility on every snap and be mindful of leaving little to no space for free yardage.
Regardless of who is running the ball, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s message to his players is to do a better job tackling.
“We keep addressing it, the fundamentals that go along with it,” Orlando said about his team’s tackling. “If everybody stays inside-out to the ball, and everybody on the outside stays outside-in, it makes it a lot easier for things to get defined. I think that’s what you’re seeing on a lot of our bigger plays is guys who are going ahead of the football, and then the guys who are chasing it have to change their angle instead of just staying inside-out, and outside-in. So that’s the stuff we worked on fundamentally when we could steal a couple of days last week.”
In the passing game, redshirt junior Kyle Phillips has been the top option for the UCLA offense. He is currently third in the Pac-12 with just under 70 yards per game, and is third in touchdowns with six. Phillips is the big play threat for the offense; he has had catches for over 20 yards in all but three games this year and receptions over 40 yards in four of his nine games. He will be another big test for a USC defense ranked in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in passing defense.
Orlando will also need to be very aware of redshirt junior tight end Greg Dulsich, who is sixth in the conference in receiving yards per game and first among tight ends. He is a dependable option for Thompson-Robinson, especially down in the red zone, and makes the most of his opportunities, with the second most yards per reception in the Pac-12.
Although the 2021 college football season has been a challenging one at times for the Trojans, a win against their crosstown rival is crucial to earning a bowl game appearance and a significant milestone for a young quarterback with a major role in the future of the program.
The Trojans take on the Bruins at 1 p.m.