In order to have a shot at covering the 19 ½ point spread this Saturday, and possibly mounting a massive upset that would earn CU its first ever victory over USC, the Buffaloes' defense is going to have to play its best game yet. Specifically, the midlevel of the defense will be the unit (aside from the defensive line but that's every game) that's most thoroughly tested. The linebacking corps is going to have step up and slow down the steady Trojan advance, or else the Buffs could be in for a long day. Here's how they match up.
Colorado's Linebackers vs. USC's Tailbacks and Receivers
Southern Cal's offensive plan begins with the ground attack driven by Javorius "Buck" Allen. The 6'1" 220 pound junior is currently the Pac-12's leading rusher, having amassed 781 yards at a 5.8 per carry pace. Perhaps the most telling evidence of Allen's talent is that he's the first USC tailback since LenDale White and Reggie Bush to record at least 5 100-yard rushing games in a single season, and he's only played 6. After his gigantic night in Tucson where he scored three touchdowns, two of which came on explosive breakaways of 34 and 48 yards, and rushed for an average of 7.9 yards on 26 carries he'll be Concern #1 for the CU defense. Justin Davis provides a nice change of pace but he only saw 7 carries against the Wildcats and isn't nearly as dangerous with the ball in his hands.
I'm going to go ahead and assume that Allen will successfully reach the second level more times than he'll fail to do so. Given that, the Colorado linebackers are going to need to limit the explosiveness of those runs. Arizona did a much better job of this in the 2nd half as they held him to only one rush over 20 yards and it played a significant role in their comeback. The Buffs stand a much better chance if they're able to keep Allen's rushes contained to medium gains, affording them more opportunities to come up with turnovers or force 4th downs thus preventing the Trojans from finishing drives.
USC's passing attack, while formidable, doesn't challenge defenses vertically as much as it should. Against Arizona, Cody Kessler was 20-30 for only 185 yards, with just 4 of those completions going for gains of over 15 yards. Colorado's defense should have some success keeping the Trojan receivers in front of them, although Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith are always threats to do anything at anytime. If the secondary continues to raise their level of play and handles their assignments the linebacking corps can focus on stopping the run and defending the mid-range patterns that the Trojans are fond of running.
Attempting to limit the crucial yards after contact and/or catch will be Addison Gillam, Kenneth Olugbode, and Woodson Greer. Mike MacIntyre has said that Gillam's concussion symptoms are low (not sure what that means exactly) and that he will see action against USC. The Buffs could really use a fully operational Addison if they're to stop Buck Allen and the Trojan receivers but if Colorado's leading tackler is unable to go for any amount of time Brady Daigh will have to step in. He's shown he's capable of producing against Hawaii and Oregon State but a game like this on the road will be an entirely different experience. Olugbode has been a quiet workhouse this season, playing nearly every defensive snap to this point (only Greg Henderson and Chidobe Awuzie have seen more) and registering 34 tackles. He'll need to be at his best, pursuing smart angles and locking on to Trojan receivers going over the middle.
The Buffs may be able to get away with stacking the box here and there and sending blitzes through the middle to put pressure on Kessler. It's a risk, as USC's playmakers are adept at turning slants and screens into big gains, but if they can bring a few more guys up to the line at the right moments it may pay off by disrupting the passing game and helping to clog running lanes.
Ultimately, this entire defense will need to exhibit sound tackling and smart, efficient movement but if the Trojan ball carriers find themselves in the secondary all evening the Buffs will be running in a race they can't win. The defensive front is going to need get around blocks and make that first tackle. It doesn't take much for Buck Allen or the two star receivers to make one move and break into open field, something Colorado cannot afford if they want to keep this one within two touchdowns and have a shot at a monumental upset in the 4th quarter.