This week, the CUI’s Justin Guerriero chatted with Eric He, Sports Editor of USC’s student newspaper The Daily Trojan, to get some intel on the University of Colorado’s next opponent.
Justin Guerriero: This Saturday, the No. 21-ranked Colorado Buffaloes are coming to Los Angeles to play the unranked, 2-3 USC Trojans. Did you see that coming?
Eric He: Certainly not, though it speaks to the parity of the Pac-12: Any given team can win a conference game against any opponent. It also speaks to a team that has surpassed expectations in Colorado and a team that has gotten off to a disappointing start in USC.
But the records are partially skewed by strength of schedule — USC has faced three ranked opponents away from home in its first five games, playing Alabama, Stanford and Utah, while Colorado had two easy opponents to start the season. As conference play kicks into gear, the Trojans have a chance to play catch-up while the Buffaloes will have to continue to prove themselves against the heart of the Pac-12.
JG: This game is a pivotal match-up for both teams. I think a win for the Buffs on the road can further quiet doubters and assert that CU is a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 Championship. What does this game mean for USC? Is this a must-win for the Trojans?
EH: If USC has any hopes of winning the Pac-12 South, I think it must win its next four games — three of which are at home — and all of them games it should be favored in. By starting 1-3, the Trojans have put themselves in a position where they cannot afford any more “bad” losses, and — despite Colorado being ranked — losing to the Buffaloes at home would be a bad loss, considering that USC is 10-0 all-time against Colorado.
JG: CU’s receiving core is arguably the most impressive position group on the team. They’ve now made Michigan, Oregon and Oregon State’s secondaries look like freshman walk-ons. How does USC’s secondary size up against Colorado’s medium-sized, speedy wide receivers?
EH: USC head coach Clay Helton has praised Colorado’s offensive firepower, and it will be a challenge for the USC secondary to handle it. But it had perhaps its best game last week against ASU, holding the Sun Devils’ high-powered offense to just 20 points. Safeties Leon McQuay III, Chris Hawkins and cornerback Jonathan Lockett were stellar defensively, with Lockett making a momentum-turning interception early in the game. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, perhaps USC’s best all-around player, will also have to play to his abilities.
But I think Colorado’s brand of hurry-up offense and its ability to distribute the ball all over the field will be USC’s toughest challenge yet defensively, and the battles downfield will probably be a deciding factor in the game.
JG: What’s been USC’s biggest weakness so far this year? Why is this team 2-3?
EH: This is a loaded question, but the two biggest factors to the rough start have been the quarterback play and game plan. Redshirt junior Max Browne started the season at quarterback, but was pulled in favor of redshirt freshman Sam Darnold before Week 4. In Darnold’s two starts, the offense has been far improved. If Darnold had been named the starter out of camp, perhaps USC would have won a few more games by now.
That ties directly in with game plan and coaching decisions. Helton has been roundly criticized for punting late in games on crucial fourth-and-short plays, a decision which cost him against Utah when the Utes drove 90-plus yards down the field to win the game in the final seconds. USC’s coaching has also been critiqued for the stagnant offense and lack of receptions for JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of the best receivers in the country. But since Darnold has taken over, Smith-Schuster has come alive and the issue of distribution has been resolved, for now.
Again, you can’t overlook the fact that the Trojans have one of the toughest schedules in the country, and starting the year with three tough opponents in four games with a rookie head coach and a new quarterback was not optimal.
JG: What did you see in USC’s recent win over ASU last week? Was that a statement game? By winning, did the Trojans prove that this slow start to the year won’t define the entirety of their 2016 season?
EH: I saw a USC team that played to its potential and showed everyone what it can and should do every game. This team is loaded with talent up and down the roster, and with a solid game plan in place, it should be able to compete with any team in the country.
Darnold threw for 300-plus yards, Smith-Schuster caught three touchdown passes and Justin Davis ran for over 100 yards, while the defense held down a powerhouse offense. This was the first “complete” game (other than the Utah State win) that USC has put together this season. It has brought back the sense that this season is not lost.
JG: Can you give me some playmakers on both sides of the ball that the Buffaloes will have to keep an eye on?
EH: Aside from Darnold, whose elusiveness and mobility has caused problems for opponents, Smith-Schuster is the guy to keep an eye on offensively. He has terrific hands and is bound for at least one big play a game. On defense, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson is a game-changer with his athleticism. He is also an excellent kick returner and offensive threat at receiver, while always a threat for a pick-six if opposing quarterbacks aren’t careful.
JG: What concerns you the most about the Colorado Buffaloes? Are there any areas where you think the Buffs have a clear edge?
EH: Colorado’s offensive firepower worries me. As well as USC’s defense played against ASU, it was torched by Alabama and Stanford and gave away a two-score lead in the second half against Utah. Keeping Shay Fields quiet and not allowing him to make big plays will be key, but with CU’s distribution of catches amongst wide receivers, the Trojans will have to be on their toes throughout the game.
JG: Colorado returned 56 upperclassmen this season, the most out of any Pac-12 team. The older guys on the squad have gone through three years of disappointing losses and blown opportunities. They’re hungry to enact revenge on Pac-12 programs that have dominated them in recent years. Beating Oregon 41-38 served as the first domino to fall. It goes without saying that the Buffaloes are eager to score another win. Can USC play the role of spoiler and beat the Buffs, likely knocking them out of the AP Top 25?
EH: I don’t think “spoiler” is the right term to use because the general perception here is that USC should take care of a Colorado program at home that it has traditionally dominated. But it would be wrong to place any doubt that the Buffaloes can continue their run.
It’s interesting how much winning affects a program — Colorado is on a high right now, experiencing success it hasn’t tasted in a decade-plus. USC is trying to make do with a rough start, and the spark provided by Darnold at quarterback and last week’s win over ASU have certainly lightened the mood a bit, but a loss to Colorado would deflate everything back down. We’ll see which mindset prevails: the happy, confident Colorado team that has far less to lose than USC, or the pressure-filled, must-win expectations that the Trojans face to get back in the Pac-12 Championship hunt.
JG: Score predictions?
EH: Colorado wants to make sure its spot in the Top 25 lasts longer than a week, but USC needs this game far more than head coach Mike MacIntyre’s team does. The Trojans have to keep the momentum rolling from last week and avoid another deflating loss, and they have the talent and home field advantage to do so. USC takes it, 35-28, in a tense game.
Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo.
Contact Daily Trojan Sports Editor Eric He at email@example.com.