Nick Dempsey, who writes for the USC SBNation blog Conquest Chronicles, was kind enough to answer our questions right before the buzzer today. If you wanting some last minute insights into the USC team, here ya go.
USC has had a ton of injuries since the beginning of the year. Who all will be out for Saturday’s matchup? Is this just bad luck or is something else going on?
The good news for USC is that the team is about as healthy as they have been all season, the bad news is that there are still a ton of key players that will either play through nagging injuries or be game time decisions. You can find the full injury report here. The list may look a bit grim but considering the Trojans played Cal with literally half of their wide receiver two deep unavailable along with their top running back, lost three of five starting offensive linemen against Washington State, and almost the entirety of their defensive front seven for Notre Dame, they actually had to start a DL against the Irish who was on the scout team the week prior.
The highlights on defense are Portin Gustin is doubtful, defensive stud (and originally Gustin’s replacement) Christian Rector is a game time decision, as is CB Iman Marshall who at best will have a limited roll today. Rasheem Green has been dealing with a nagging injury for several weeks now but he is probable. OLB Uchenna Nwosu is also not 100% but likely to play. Other defenders out include: OLB Hunter Echols, LB Tayler Katoa, CB Jonathan Lockett, DL Marlon Tuipulotu, DL Kenny Bigelow.
On offense OT Nathan Smith and OL Viane Talamaivao are out. Offensive linemen Chuma Edoga and Toa Lobendahn are not 100% but probable. Running backs Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai are not 100% but are still available leaving another heavy burden on Ronald Jones. Tight Ends Josh Falo and Tyler Petite are also not 100% but available.
Part of this is bad luck, every team has to deal with injuries of some sort it happens. You also cannot completely discount a few other things. For example the USC defensive coordinator is notorious for not resting or rotating players leaving his starters on the field for basically every snap. That is a lot of fatigue and a lot of hits, increasing their burden even more is all of Sam Darnold’s turnovers putting them back on the field more frequently. Naturally they are going to get beat up. And speaking of Darnold’s interceptions, defenses really wanted him to pass more because the Trojans were inconsistent and downright sloppy when throwing. As a result, starting with week 3 against Texas every defense started crashing the box on just about every play as hard as they could and with as many people as they could. That resulted in a ton of punishment on the offense particularly the line and running backs.
The Trojans seem to have the most success offensively when they run the ball effectively. Is this because they run more when they have the lead or is USC just a great running team?
It is a little of both but mostly they are a great running team. Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr are an amazing tandem that can put up 300+ rushing yards. When they are not running into a wall 6+ defenders up front and can get even a tiny crease big things happen in the running game. If you can take it away though, USC struggles.
Sam Darnold has been unfairly labeled as a bust or a disappointment, largely because of how much other media outlets were hyping him (in my opinion). To me, he’s still a top 3 QB in the conference. How much of his struggles are self-inflicted and how can CU force him to make some turnovers on Saturday?
Darnold has certainly underperformed this season. In fairness though the hype surrounding him was so unreal I’m not sure there was anything any player could have done to live up to those expectations. However, Darnold’s biggest problems are staring down his receivers, inaccurate deep throws, and possibly some confidence issues which can sometimes turn “gunslinging” into panicking. It was not all on him though. Tee Martin and the rest of the offensive staff have called some terrible plays, and drew up terrible game plans that were hopelessly predictable, and usually put his players in the absolute worst position to succeed. The wide receivers on this team were also not good at the beginning of the season and that caused quite a few problems as well. Though Martin seems to have improved, and the receivers are starting to come around, Darnold is also playing much better as well.
It is also worth noting that in addition to being among the worst in the nation in turnovers, the USC offense also has a knack for tons of penalties, they are one of the most penalized teams in the nation. All of those false starts, and holding penalties are frequently putting USC too far behind the chains to run forcing Darnold to dig them out with his arm.
Who are the players to watch on offense? Defense?
You will already be watching Darnold and definitely expect a heavy dose of Ronald Jones at running back. Deontay Burnett has been Darnold’s favorite target this season, but Tyler Vaughns has come on strong. Steven Mitchell Jr is also a reliable pass catcher. Tight End Daniel Imatorbhebhe started to turn a corner last season towards the end of the year but has been out with injury for most of this season. Now that he is back they might start working him in more especially with the other two tight ends they use dealing with nagging injuries.
On defense Rasheem Green and Cam Smith are the big ones up front they are excellent at causing problems for offenses. At CB offenses are starting to realize passing to CB Jack Jones’ side is becoming a rather dicey proposition.
Score prediction for the game?
This is always the hardest question because you never really know if you are going to get good USC or bad USC. If you get the USC from the first two games of the season, and the last two weeks then the Trojans should be able to win quite comfortably. If you get the USC from mid-September until mid-October then it will be a pretty tight game. I think the Trojans have it figured out so I’ll say USC wins 35-24. The one caveat here though is that if bad USC shows up, get ready for 20-17 error-fest.