No. 19 Colorado faces biggest test yet at USC

Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. (2) is a weapon the Buffaloes use in a variety of ways.Photo Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Sports Xchange

“Game of runs” typically refers to basketball. The concept also applies in a few ways to Saturday’s Pac-12 Conference matchup at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, pitting No. 19-ranked Colorado against USC.

USC (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12) puts a pair of impressive runs on the line in this early meeting for the South division lead: One is the Trojans’ 18-0 record at the Coliseum under coach Clay Helton. The other is an all-time 12-0 mark against Colorado.

“We’re definitely aware of it,” Colorado defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson said. “That’s why our intensity, our mindset’s gone up another notch during these practices. A lot of energy, a lot of intensity showing up.”

Beyond the historic implications, Colorado (5-0, 2-0) aims to extend both its best start since 1998 and its early lead in the South. The Buffs already boast head-to-head wins against two of their divisional counterparts, routing UCLA on Sept. 28, 38-16, and outlasting Arizona State last week, 28-21, behind four touchdowns from wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr.

The multitalented Shenault comes in with six receiving touchdowns and four rushing scores, the byproduct of what Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre described as offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini’s goal to “put the ball in (Shenault’s) hands as much as possible.”

Colorado uses the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder in a variety of spots around the field: lined up wide at receiver, in the slot, at tight end, and in short-yardage and goal-line situations out of the Wildcat. Shenault ranks 11th in the nation in all-purpose at 149.8 yards per game, and tied for seventh with his 10 touchdowns. Shenault’s presents the USC defense with yet another different look. The Trojans faced a pass-heavy, air-raid attack Sept. 21 against Washington State, then went up against a balanced spread on Sept. 29 at Arizona, which employed two primary ball-carriers and a variety of receivers.

USC won both games, rebounding from consecutive losses Sept. 8 and 15 at Stanford and Texas, but the Trojans gave up runs in both. Washington State built a 30-17 lead early in the third quarter, while Arizona rattled off three unanswered touchdowns to nearly erase a 24-0 deficit.

The lulls are partially the result of a USC offense still seeking its identity with true freshman quarterback JT Daniels and an up-and-down rushing game. The ground attack was more up the last time out, paced by Aca’Cedric Ware’s 173 yards and two touchdowns, but three turnovers and 169 yards worth of penalties kept the Trojans from capitalizing.

“We’ve got to clean up penalties and those turnovers immediately,” Helton said. “The defense played excellent, we were able to run the ball like we planned, our special teams are getting better with each week. (But) we’ve got to cut the mistakes out and have a clean game.”

While the offense’s inability to finish drives has contributed to USC surrendering runs to opponents, the Trojans’ defense isn’t without its question marks. Depth in the secondary is no closer to resolution in Week 7 than it was Week 1, and may be more of an issue after the bye week.

The possibility of safety Bubba Bolden returning no longer exists, with him removed from the roster this past weekend. USC is also without safety Isaiah Pola-Mao for the rest of the season, and cornerback Isaiah Langley’s status for Saturday is uncertain. USC also lost Ykili Ross and Jack Jones before the season.

Meanwhile, Colorado boasts a corps of pass-catchers beyond Shenault.

“We have depth at wide receiver, and anybody who gets in can make a play,” Shenault said.

Quarterback Steven Montez has favored Shenault to the tune of 51 passes — more than double K.D. Nixon’s 23 catches — but the trio of Nixon, Tony Brown and Jay MacIntyre give the Buffs’ offense options. And, unlike the multi-receiver, air-raid look Washington State sent at USC, Colorado has been balanced and productive in the run game. Travon McMillian is averaging 105.6 rushing yards per game, almost eight more than the Trojans allowed Arizona on Sept. 29.

Helton told reporters during the bye that the week off came at “a good time.” Among the orders of business with the time off: linebacker/defensive end Porter Gustin getting time to rest an injured ankle, and Daniels having the opportunity to recharge.

“With any great quarterback or pitcher, at some point in time, you’ve got to rest him,” Helton said.