Looking at Utah's defensive front, one, they are huge across the board. —Clay Helton
SALT LAKE CITY — It may be anxiety-inducing for Utah fans not to know who will quarterback the team against No. 13 USC on Saturday, but imagine trying to prepare a defensive plan for three possible scenarios.
Trojans head coach Clay Helton said that the most likely options, Troy Williams or Tyler Huntley, are similar enough that preparation doesn’t change much.
“We’re fortunate in this case, both with Tyler and Troy, both terrific athletes,” he said. “We’ve watched Troy grow up right here in Los Angeles. We got the opportunity to compete against him last year. So we know he can spin the ball, as well as be dangerous with his legs, and so is Tyler. What a good job he did in the first four games.”
Helton said his defense will engage in similar preparations for both quarterbacks.
“What’s really dangerous is (Huntley) was getting over 50 yards rushing,” Helton said. “But you’re dealing with two athletes who can throw the ball, so you’re not having to say, ‘Oh, gosh, you got to prepare two game plans.’ They’re similar enough in comparison that you can stick with the same game plan.”
The Trojans' greatest challenges, however, may come in trying to run the ball against Utah’s defense. While Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged some similarities between Utah’s defense and the Trojans' defense, Helton said this year’s Utes may be one of the toughest defensive combinations the Trojans will face.
“Looking at Utah’s defensive front, one, they are huge across the board,” he said laughing. “Especially with (Kylie) Fitts and (Bradlee Anae) out, they’re 300-pounds across the board, terrific size. But what really impressed me was this could be the best combination tandem of linebackers with (Sunia) Tauteoli and (Kavika) Luafatasaga. Those two kids, together, have played exceptional football. It makes it hard to run on them.”
Utah’s defense will have its work cut out for it as well trying to contain quarterback Sam Darnold. While the Utes beat the redshirt sophomore in his collegiate debut last year, he’s clearly a dynamic player who has generated Heisman talk.
He’s completed 64.9 percent of his passes through six games for 1,705 yards and 12 touchdowns. However, he’s thrown nine interceptions.
Still, Darnold has won 14 of his 16 collegiate starts, and he’s currently 21st in the nation in completions and 22nd in the country in passing touchdowns.
UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Washington State’s Luke Falk have more yardage while Huntley (73.3 percent) has the best completion percentage of any quarterback in the Pac-12. Williams has a 50 percent completion rate in his 29 of 58 completions.
There was some controversy surrounding Darnold and a rift with coaches as he suggested the team’s play calling was too predictable. He apologized in a statement on Tuesday.
The Trojans, who’ve enjoyed their best start (5-1) in five years, have lost a significant number of starters to injury. In the Washington game, they lost three offensive linemen to injury. There are five other offensive starters back from the 2016 team for the Trojans, in addition to Darnold: tailback Ronald Jones II, receiver Deontay Burnett, guard Viane Talamaivao, center Nico Falah and tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe. Jones is averaging 6.2 yards per carry, and he has seven touchdowns. His longest run this season is 86 yards.
For Utah, Zack Moss is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and has three rushing touchdowns.
Whittingham knows an offense led by a player like Darnold is dangerous.
“Darnold, I know he’s had a setback or two this season, but I think the guy is terrific,” Whittingham said. “He’s a phenomenal quarterback, a great athlete, and one of the best quarterbacks in the country, without a doubt. Defensively, we’ve got our work cut out trying to slow them down.”