LOS ANGELES – Southern California coach Clay Helton has no illusions about where the Pac-12 South showdown Friday against No. 10 Utah will be decided.
“I told our guys in the team meeting right off the bat I think this is going to be a big man’s game,” Helton said. “I think whoever controls the offensive and defensive fronts will win the game.”
But the Trojans will need their offensive line to play bigger and better than they did in the 30-27 overtime loss at BYU to prove Helton right.
USC (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12) often struggled to handle the Cougars when they rushed three linemen and dropped eight defenders into coverage to limit the passing game component of the Air Raid spread offense. Coordinator Graham Harrell adjusted by calling 45 runs, which gained 171 yards.
Offensive line coach Tim Drevno said his group had to do better than creating an average of 3.8 yards per carry. The problem came from not being able to establish opportunities for explosive runs because the linemen couldn’t get to where they were blocking BYU’s linebackers or safeties. USC had four runs that gained more than 10 yards, the longest a 16-yard rush by Vavae Malepeai in the third quarter.
When USC had a chance to win the game in overtime, the ground game could not take over because of the same issues controlling the middle of BYU’s defensive line. Center Brett Neilon could not keep nose tackle Khyiris Tonga in check at the snap on first down, disrupting the timing of right guard Jalen McKenzie as he tried to pull around to his left. Tight end Josh Falo was delayed in blocking a linebacker as a result, and Malepeai was stopped for a loss of one.
Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis threw his third interception of the afternoon two plays later.
Drevno believes that painful experience will benefit his offensive line later in the season.
“To be quite honest with you, I’m glad that it happened to us so that we can fix that problem,” Drevno said. “And somewhere down the road I imagine somebody will try to pull off that same plan against us, you know, and we’ll be polished to be able to come back and do a good job with it. It’s all about growing and learning, but the one thing I’ll tell you about the O-line and the team, those guys played hard. I mean, they play hard and we’re proud of them for that. We just fell a little short. But that’s why you got another one coming up.”
USC will needs those lessons to take hold quickly given the quality of Utah’s defensive line. All three senior starters earned All-Pac-12 recognition last season. Defensive end Bradlee Anae and tackle Leki Foku made the first team, and tackle John Penisini was a second team selection.
The Utes (3-0) are seventh in the FBS in rushing defense, allowing 65 yards per game. Their starting front has four sacks, led by Anae’s three quarterback takedowns.
“When you’re talking about this Utah front, you’re looking at four or five NFL players on it,” Helton said. “Their kids have played a lot of ball, a lot of juniors and seniors on that football team. Well coached by Kyle (Whittingham), and it will be a great challenge for our offensive line.”
Adding to the degree of difficulty for USC is the absence of right guard Andrew Vorhees. Helton said Vorhees, a junior who had been splitting time with McKenzie, is out indefinitely because of a foot injury.
However, Drevno and his players believe they will respond.
“I feel very confident with this group,” Drevno said. “My belief in them and my excitement for them and for them to be successful is still there. Nothing’s changed.”
NOTES: CB Greg Johnson is in concussion protocol after he left the game against BYU in the first half. . Freshman WR Bru McCoy participated in practice for the first time and went through conditioning drills. McCoy, who signed with USC before transferring to Texas and participating in spring practice only to rejoin the Trojans, had been dealing with a fever caused by an unknown illness for several weeks.
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