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UCLA vs. Southern Cal Offensive Preview: An Offensive Line Can Make All the Difference

After benching Max Browne, the Trojan offense hasn’t looked back.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The most important week on the schedule is here: Beat $C week. We had three glorious years with Brett Hundley at the helm, but we sputtered to a 40-21 loss last year at the Colosseum. This year, with our starting quarterback out, things aren’t looking so good. Both teams are coming off wins, but Southern Cal just handed Washington their first loss of the season. Everyone knows that anything can happen in this game, regardless of the state of either team. USC started the season 1-3, but they’ve now won six in a row. Let’s take a look at the offense that the Bruins will hopefully be stopping on Saturday.

Quarterback

At the beginning of the season, Max Browne had been given the starting job, but was benched after three games. Sam Darnold is now heading up the offense, and he has seen major success. He was named Pac 12 Offensive Player of the Week on Monday, and when you look at his stats, he is only getting better. His completion percentage for the month of November is nearing 70%, and that number has only increased since he took over the starting job. He has racked up 2,161 yards and 22 touchdowns, and has only thrown six interceptions in seven games. Clearly, this is where we need to worry. Our back up, although he has the heart of a warrior, is nowhere near the talent level of this kid. According to his bio, USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster says, “If you have ever seen Aaron Rodgers throw the ball, it’s a fastball. It just goes there. That’s what Darnold’s passes are like.” It will be up to our defense to get to Darnold and rattle him enough so that he can’t complete passes like he has in the last seven games. If we allow Southern Cal to start scoring early, we’ll definitely be in trouble.

Offensive Line

When researching USC’s offensive line, I found that ESPN had ranked them the best in the Pac 12 before the season started, and their average weight is 332 pounds per starter. But they were one of the major problems earlier in the year, despite the fact that the front five were all returning players. They clearly had issues, including the ejection of Chuma Edoga from their game against Utah State. Edoga punched an Aggie defenseman and possibly an official in the aftermath. Former players publicly called the team out on various forms of social media. But after three games and one of their worst starts in 15 years, the line started to see some improvement. Their running game improved and Darnold wasn’t being sacked nearly as much. St. John Bosco alum and Junior Nico Falah will be starting at center and was called USC’s best replacement by the Los Angeles Times. He came into the game last year against the Bruins when Khaliel Rodgers was injured, and this year, when starting center Toa Lobendahn sustained two torn ligaments in his knee during the season opener, Falah was there to rescue the Trojan line once again. This year, Falah is making all the calls on the line, and according to Offensive Coordinator Tee Martin, “if he’s wrong, we’re still right because we’re following what he does”. Junior Damien Mama will be starting at left guard, as has done for 17 games at USC. Senior Chad Wheeler is the Trojans’ most experienced offensive lineman, and he will be starting at left tackle. Junior Viane Talamaivao and senior Zach Banner will be on the right. Banner was actually looking to drop weight this year, as he once weighed close to 400 pounds. At that point, big became too big for the offensive lineman. NFL scouts were worried that the extra weight might lead to injuries down the road and his draft status was definitely affected. He feels better this year at a svelte 345 pounds, just shy of two Adoree Jacksons. This line is stacked with upperclassmen and is one of the keys to Darnold’s success. It’s no surprise that once the line started to gel, the season turned around and the offense was much more successful (if only...). They were flagged for four false starts against Washington, so let’s hope the jitterbugs return this Saturday.

Running Backs

Sophomore Ronald Jones, also a sprinter for the Trojan track team, had a breakout season as a rookie last year, and has 773 yards this season alone. He averages 6.3 yards per carry and also has 68 reception yards this year. He is getting most of the carries at this point. Senior Justin Davis returned in the win against Washington after missing three games with a high ankle sprain. He is an experienced tailback, and has 480 yards and two touchdowns this season. With an improving offensive line, the Trojan offense now has more options with the run game.

Wide Receivers

This is the position where our defense will also have their work cut out for them. Stopping Junior Juju Smith-Schuster is going to be key. He has 51 receptions for 682 yards, which is not exactly on par with the 1,454 yards he had last year. He is a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, and LA Daily News writer Joey Kauffman quotes Darnold as saying, “Whenever I have the chance to get it out to him, I know he’s going to do something special with it.” Senior Darreus Rogers has 41 receptions for 571 yards, and you can bet you’ll see Darnold sling a few his way. With a second weapon on offense, this opens up Darnold’s options not just for these two, but for others. Junior Steven Mitchell, Jr. has contributed 24 catches for 226 yards this year. The secondary will need to be all over these guys to shut down scoring. I easily see these guys burning our cornerbacks and sprinting to the end zone for touchdowns if we aren’t 100% on point this weekend.

Analysis

No question, we have to be firing on all cylinders this weekend. In the past, we’ve usually been able to muster up a level of energy that was unprecedented in other games. With a back up quarterback and a fledgling line, I’m worried about our ability to score. We definitely have the talent on defense to keep up with these guys, but Southern Cal looked great against Washington and will be riding high into Saturday’s game. We can’t give up those long plays and rack up undisciplined penalties that only work in the opponent’s favor. We basically have to execute a flawless game to come out with a win. Like Robert said, if Fafaul walks out with the win on Saturday, he deserves his own movie too.

Go Bruins! Beat $C!