The Texas Longhorns find themselves in a familiar situation heading into their matchup against the USC Trojans, where a win could help change the narrative of their young season, while a loss puts them playing behind their schedule for the foreseeable future.
However, as the Longhorns welcome USC, the Trojans are without Sam Darnold, who is now playing on Sundays, and Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger has a season of experience under his belt. Which young quarterback can take his team to victory and set the course for the rest of their season?
With so many questions about the Trojans, we tapped USC expert Dina Colunga of Conquest Chronicles, to help shed some light on the men of Troy. You can follow her (@alwayscompete) or the site (@CChroniclesSBN) on Twitter for more USC news and insights.
Burnt Orange Nation: An injury to freshman quarterback JT Daniels sidelined him briefly against Stanford, and that same injury may keep him out against Texas. If he is available, what should fans expect from the young signal caller. If he’s not, what Matt Fink bring to the table?
Conquest Chronicles: JT Daniels suffered a bruised throwing hand after bashing it on a helmet against Stanford but Clay Helton expects Daniels to be ready on Saturday. On Tuesday, Daniels said his hand was almost at 100%, so I am almost positive Matt Fink is not going to be starting against Texas.
Fans should expect Daniels to come out guns blazing to prove he can be the guy. In a post-game interview after the loss to Stanford he put the blame on himself, per Joey Kaufman “The biggest blame goes on me. Age is not an excuse and neither is experience. If coach puts me as the starter, I gotta get the job done.”
Daniels will want to pass early and connect deep early, especially to favorite target and high school teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown. who is USC’s leading receiver at the moment. St. Brown didn’t get much rotation last game, which many felt was one of the reasons for the loss.
I think coaches wanted to see if Daniels could connect with Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr. more than he had against UNLV, which obviously wasn’t the case. Against Texas though, I think fans will see a lot more of St. Brown to help Daniels establish a rhythm he couldn’t against Stanford.
BON: The Trojan’s rush defense has struggled this season, giving up 235.5 yards per game, 74.9 yards more than a year ago. What has caused the regression defensively for the USC rush defense?
CC: USC’s rush defense has struggled early, but it improved from UNLV to Stanford. They were able to hold Bryce Love to 136 yards, which all things considered is impressive. USC only allowed one rushing TD from Stanford and held them to 159 yards on the ground compared to UNLV’s 309 yards.
As for the regression from last season, we lost two of our biggest contributors in Uchenna Nwosu and Rasheem Green, who are both now on active rosters in the NFL. Last season we also struggled with the run early in the year in our season opener against Western Michigan and in the second game of the season against Stanford, then we found our groove against Texas.
The same trend might be showing itself this year. Whether or not the rush defense has just been succumbing to early season hiccups will be determined on Saturday.
BON: A year ago, Collin Johnson played his best game of the year — seven catches for 191 yards — against the Trojans. What do you expect from the Trojans to try and shore up their biggest struggle from a last season?
CC: While our rush defense seems to have regressed, I think our pass defense has improved from last season. USC’s secondary held Stanford receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside to only 62 yards after his 225 yard game against SDSU. Cornerback Iman Marshall has done a phenomenal job so far in limiting big time receivers and I think the memory of Johnson beating him down the field last year will only fuel a bigger performance from him this time around.
However, USC is down to only three scholarship safeties after losing Ykili Ross, Bubba Bolden, and Isaiah Palo-Mao, so if there was a game for Texas to test the waters through the air, this is it. New guys in the safety rotation will be redshirt sophomore CJ Pollard and true freshman Talanoa Hufanga.
We still have our three-year starter Marvell Tell out there, but the two young guys will be a threat to USC’s defensive success if they can’t step up.
BON: Texas and USC are in a similar position, looking to avoid a losing record heading into the grind of conference play. Granted, USC has already played one conference game, but what would the level of panic be if the Trojans were 1-2 heading into the meat of conference play?
CC: Clay Helton has been under fire from the moment he was hired, so putting him on the hot seat would be nothing new for Trojan fans. While I think the panic for most fans would be at 100, I just keep going back to the 2016 season where we ended up winning the Rose Bowl. We started 1-3, yes we had a QB change from Max Brown to Sam Darnold which led to our running the table for the rest of the season but nothing is ever over until time runs out.
If we start 1-2 this season we can still win the Pac-12 South, there are still games for us to win and for conference rivals to lose. Play calling will be the biggest issue for fans if we are 1-2 after Saturday, it was a mess against Stanford. Not having St. Brown in there as much as possible and not giving the ball to the running back who had the hot hand all game (Stephen Carr), were huge mistakes on our OC Tee Martin.
With previous losses, Helton had shouldered most of the heat from USC fans, but if we continue to lose Martin will be lit up, especially if our red-zone efficiency continues to be as inefficient as it has been.
BON: Who or what do you think is going to be the difference-maker, positively or negatively, for the Trojans Saturday?
CC: JT Daniels will have to show USC that he can win games for them, I think the loss to Stanford will only have motivated him to play at a level we haven’t seen from him quite yet. When Daniels is faced with a problem, he solves it. I think he will light it up through the air.
Whether or not our pass rush can get to Ehlinger will also be a huge difference maker. We saw it last season how we frazzled him, and we need to be able to do it again to force him to make mistakes. Ehlinger is one of the best dual threats I have seen just for his sheer will and power running the ball, if we can’t get to him and force him to make throws he isn’t comfortable with, he will be a problem for USC.