It’s finally here. The No. 22 USC Trojans will pay a visit to Austin this weekend in a rematch of last year’s double overtime thriller in Los Angeles.
USC comes into this game a completely different team, having lost quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Ronald Jones II to the NFL. Meanwhile, Texas seems to be in a similar place it was last season — looking for its next big break.
After close losses to top-ranked teams in the first 15 games of head coach Tom Herman’s Texas tenure, the Longhorns will look to nab their first signature victory under their new head coach.
Here’s how the season’s most anticipated game could swing:
Texas wins if …
… it runs the ball consistently. With a run game like Texas’, it’s easy to become increasingly pass-happy as the run game stagnates. However, Texas stuck to the run game last week against Tulsa and used a big run from sophomore running back Daniel Young late in the fourth quarter to seal the deal. Against a Trojan defense that has allowed 233 rushing yards per game this season, running the ball consistently with a group including Young and graduate transfer Tre Watson could give Texas control of the game.
… it makes freshmen look like freshmen. USC has a new face in its backfield: freshman quarterback JT Daniels. Daniels fared well against UNLV in Week One but struggled last week at Stanford. Texas is definitely familiar with the fickle nature of a freshman quarterback — making big plays on one play and head-scratchers on another — and should try and capitalize on it. An early interception against Tulsa set the tone for the first half, and the Texas defense should do all they can to force the issue and take Daniels out of his comfort zone.
… it isn’t cute on offense. Under offensive coordinator Tim Beck, Texas has opted for shorter passes instead of deep shots. Despite that, the Longhorns have found success throwing downfield, linking up with junior wide receivers Devin Duvernay and Lil’Jordan Humphrey for touchdowns in consecutive weeks. Texas boasts a lot of size in its wide receiver group and will have a solid chance of making a play on a long ball as long as they don’t overthink it.
Texas loses if …
… it loses the field position battle. Texas has hurt itself in the first two games with critical turnovers and occasional special teams errors. A couple of shanked punts from freshman punter Ryan Bujcevski set both Maryland and Tulsa up with short fields, shifting momentum away from the Longhorns. On the other end, interceptions and fumbles have done just the same. If Texas wants to win, it’ll have to execute in all three phases of the game and avoid critical mistakes that can shift field position, such as the blocked punt last week.
… it can’t pass. This game in particular will pose a challenge for Sam Ehlinger as he faces a stout Trojan pass defense which has only allowed 140 yards per game so far this season. USC is going to do all it can to contain Ehlinger in the pocket and force him to be one-dimensional. They know Ehlinger isn’t the most accurate passer. If USC can force mistakes in the passing game, it could swing the game drastically.
… the crowd is out of it. The last thing Texas wants to do is fall behind in front of what will be a sellout crowd on Saturday night. A lot of what is adding to the buildup around this game is the atmosphere. Texas hasn’t had a game of this magnitude at home since it hosted then-No. 10 Notre Dame in 2016 and will need that same energy at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium that pushed them past the favored Irish. A slow start will take the one intangible — the noise — out of the arena and will let USC have their way with Texas.