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The keys for the USC defense in Utah rematch

The keys for the USC defense in Utah rematch

LOS ANGELES — The answer came in response to a question about improving in pass defense, but defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s answer was illustrative of No. 4 USC’s mindset as it prepares for its rematch against No. 11 Utah in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday.

“I think a step would be meaningful. We gotta take leaps forward,” Grinch said Tuesday. “We watch the film, we have frustration. They watch the film, they have a lot of confidence. We understand that.”

When the Trojans met the Utes in mid-October, USC gave up 43 points and 562 yards, both season-worst marks for USC. The Trojans, naturally, lost, despite scoring seven touchdowns and tallying 556 yards themselves.

On Friday, however, USC gets a chance to atone for its only loss. If it does so, the Trojans will win the Pac-12 championship and advance to the College Football Playoff for the first time ever.

For USC to do that, the defense will need, as Grinch says, to be leaps and bounds better than it was in Week 7. Here’s a look at what USC is looking at as it works to prepare for the Utes.

Stop that man

If you hear one Utah name in the build-up to this game, it will be that of tight end Dalton Kincaid. Against USC, Kincaid caught all 16 passes that came his way for a career-high 234 yards and a touchdown, moving the chains 12 times for first downs.

“As a competitor, you’re certainly reminded of it. And it doesn’t take playing him again to be reminded of it. It’s a constant,” Grinch said. “Someone has their career game against you, there’s a level of embarrassment about it.”

Perhaps most concerning for USC was what Kincaid did with the ball in his hands against the Trojans. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end totaled 109 yards after the catch against USC, and forced four of USC’s 18 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.

That’s why Grinch is calling for an all-hands-on-deck mentality against Kincaid this week, saying that if 10 Trojans are trying to tackle him on a given play, that’s one too few.

Man up

Against USC, Utah quarterback Cam Rising completed 67.4% of his passes for 415 yards. Devaughn Vele and Micah Bernard each caught five passes, while five other Utes added one each.

While Grinch wants to see the USC pass rush do a better job of completing sacks than it did in the first matchup, he put the onus on the secondary to win its individual battles, particularly in one-on-one opportunities.

“We gotta find ways to win in man coverage,” Grinch said. “We gotta have some confidence when we call man coverage that my man’s not going to catch the football.”

Hold the line

An interesting wrinkle to this rematch is that Utah’s offense has shifted since it last played USC. Rising suffered an unknown injury either against USC or in the bye week that followed, as he missed Utah’s next game and has been limited in the four games since.

This has forced the Utes to put a renewed emphasis on the run game. After averaging 192.4 rushing yards through the first seven games, Utah has averaged 258.6 yards on the ground the past five weeks.

USC actually did respectably against the run versus Utah, holding the Utes to a season-low 138 rushing yards. That may or may not have been a result of Utah playing from behind for much of the game. But USC should expect a much more determined rushing effort by the Utes this time around.

“Respect their ability to run the football really at all times,” Grinch said. “Playing that program in the past, there’s always been an emphasis that way of physical play that you gotta have respect for.”


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