Months after wondering whether USC might have enough pass rushers to even survive the spring, Alex Grinch took approximately two seconds Wednesday to bask in the fact that his defense now leads all college football in sacks through six weeks.
“That’s interesting,” the USC defensive coordinator said before challenging his unit to make every one of those nation-leading 24 sacks again in the second half of the season.
“That’s got to continue,” he said.
That won’t be easy, even with dominant defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu leading the way. Only three other teams in the past decade of college football have managed a higher rate of sacks per game than USC this season.
It has done so with an unexpected cast of sack artists. While Tuipulotu has been largely unstoppable — leading the nation with seven sacks of his own — 10 other Trojans have also taken down opposing quarterbacks at least once.
USC’s defense will need all hands on deck if it has any hope of containing elusive quarterback Cam Rising on Saturday at Utah.
Rising, a Newbury Park High product, was once a top recruiting target of Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, but ultimately chose Texas before eventually transferring to Utah.
“He’s really been a great fit there for the team and what they’ve done offensively,” Riley said. “He’s run it very well and then you can see this year just his evolution, right? He’s more experienced, they’re doing more things I think through him, which is no surprise. Running the ball well, throwing it well. That’s why I recruited him coming out.”
The reigning Pac-12 offensive player of the year, Rising has been sacked just five times in six games. He ranks behind only Oregon’s Bo Nix in rushing yards by a Pac-12 quarterback this season.
As quarterbacks go, Grinch says, Rising is especially tough to take down.
“You have to make sure, as best you can, it’s not one guy trying to get him down,” he said. “Similar to how you would describe a running back going through the hole. It can’t just be solo tackles.”
Here are three things to watch for when USC faces Utah on Saturday at 5 p.m. PDT (Fox; Fox Sports app):
A more even split
While Travis Dye took over last week, rolling to a season-high 28 carries, fellow running back Austin Jones watched from the sideline. He received just three snaps and didn’t get a single carry, both season lows.
Riley insisted that Jones’ lack of usage wasn’t meant as a message, but rather indicated how well Dye was playing. The USC coach said he expects more of a committee approach in the coming weeks.
“We left that game saying we should have played Austin some,” Riley said. “Austin’s a good player, he’s a reliable player, he’s had some big plays for us. He’s one of our better players on the offense, so disappointed that we didn’t get him in any, but he’ll be a big part of it going forward.”
Utah had ranked among the stingier run defenses in the nation before UCLA rolled over the Utes last week, racking up 203 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in a 42-32 win. Expect USC to employ a similar plan, utilizing multiple backs, including freshman Raleek Brown, who rushed for five yards in just two carries against Washington State.
After being held in check last week by Washington State, receiver Jordan Addison will have to get back on track against one of the top cornerbacks in not only the Pac-12, but the country.
Utah’s Clark Phillips III is tied for tops in the nation with five interceptions, all in the last three weeks. Whether he’ll stick solely with Addison on Saturday remains to be seen, but USC’s top receiver is looking forward to whatever chances he’ll get to tangle with Phillips.
“He’s a solid corner,” Addison said. “He’s got great feet, good speed. Challenges like this, this is what I look up to, and this is where I rise the most.”
Few offenses have been better this season on third down than USC. But Utah isn’t far behind.
The Trojans have converted 52% of their third downs this season, their best rate in over a decade. And that’s after a six-of-15 performance on third down against Washington State.
Utah, which has converted on 49% of its third down plays, could make USC pay if those struggles continue. The Utes have allowed opponents to convert just 32% of third downs, setting up a critical battle on the most critical of downs.