Expectations were high for the Southern California Trojans coming into the season.
Many pundits had USC as a top-25 team and predicted they'd finish at or near the top of the Pac-12 South division.
After a 1-3 start to the season, it appeared the Trojans were headed for a disappointing season. They rallied to rout Arizona State last week, however, and perhaps get back on track.
BuffZone.com caught up with Joey Kaufman, who covers the Trojans for the Orange County Register, to get his thoughts on the team and this week's game against Colorado.
BuffZone: What did last week's win against Arizona State — especially the way they won in dominating fashion — do for the confidence of the Trojans?
Kaufman: It was pretty big in terms of offering a brief moment of calm. For the first month of the season, there had been a rather unusual amount of speculation about Clay Helton's job security, especially for a first-year head coach. A 46-point loss to Alabama, the third worst defeat in school history, didn't get things on the right footing. A fourth loss in five games would have added more uncertainty, potential panic, etc. For now, the season remains salvageable and players talk about a Pac-12 South division title remaining within grasp. They already have two conference losses, but won the South at 6-3 a year ago.
BuffZone: ASU had been scoring with relative ease before last week. What did USC do to slow them down, and do they believe that can translate against Colorado's high-powered offense?
Kaufman: It blitzed more. Some data from the smart folks at Pro Football Focus: USC blitzed on 50 percent of passing downs against Arizona State, up from the 31 percent in its first four games. It resulted in a good bit of pressure, as Manny Wilkins was sacked down three times in the first half. Comparatively, USC had five sacks in its first four games and none in its first two Pac-12 games. So for a defense with a young front seven, it was an encouraging development. The Trojans will need to be disruptive again.
BuffZone: What has Sam Darnold brought to the offense that they didn't have with Max Browne?
Kaufman: He lets them run the offense they want to run. Mike MacIntyre called it a "spread offense" with Darnold behind center. USC coach Clay Helton mostly quibbled with the wording this week. A true spread, Helton argued, is when a team uses four receivers without a tight end, and the Trojans use a tight end. Fair enough. But USC does mix in a number of spread elements — run-pass options and zone-read options. Darnold, a more agile runner, is better suited for those situations. They have been more explosive too. The competition has certainly slipped (Arizona State is not Alabama), but USC has averaged 7.7 yards per play in two games with Darnold starting compared to 4.6 yards per play with Browne.
BuffZone: Although USC is 10-0 all-time against Colorado, do you get a sense that the players have a bit more respect for this year's Buffaloes?
Kaufman: I think so. Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a senior defensive tackle, quipped earlier this week that, "This is probably the most exciting game I've had this year." It's possible he forgot who USC played in week 1, but I do think Colorado has gained enough national and local acclaim from their hot start to get the attention of players. Last year's tight game is another factor too. I wonder about fan interest, though. This is a 1 p.m. (Pacific time) kickoff and the Coliseum has been mostly half full this season. I'm not sure there's the excitement needed to make this an intimidating venue.
BuffZone: What is the biggest key for USC to come out of this game with a victory?
Kaufman: It needs to get off to a fast start. In losses to Stanford and Alabama, USC was held to only a field goal in the first half, and trailed by the same margin, 17-3, at halftime. It put up 27 points in the first half last week against Arizona State, running off 35 consecutive points, and really put the Sun Devils on their heels. If USC's offense sputters out of the gate, Colorado will hang around, and is more than good enough to pull off a win.
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.