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    No. 18 USC hosts No. 14 Utah with all eyes on Utes QB Cameron Rising
    • October 20, 2023

    USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch sees Cameron Rising’s name on the depth chart, just like you.

    He is Utah’s 24-year-old boogeyman looming over USC’s rapidly shrinking hopes for a College Football Playoff, clock ticking down on the quarterback’s recovery from a torn ACL in last year’s Rose Bowl – and meniscus, MPFL and MCL, as he revealed on an ESPN 700 show a couple weeks ago. Over the summer, Rising came back to his high school stomping grounds at Newbury Park to train, coach Joe Wyatt said, and was “hobbling pretty good.”

    Within nine months, since the knee injury in January, Rising has progressed so rapidly that the No. 14 Utes (5-1, 2-1) are just “waiting week after week for a thumbs-up,” as coach Kyle Whittingham said this week.

    “He’s bought all in to gettin’ back on the field,” Wyatt said, “that’s for sure.”

    And Rising’s name has remained perched at the top of Utah’s depth chart at quarterback, even without taking a single snap in 2023. Backups Nate Johnson and Bryson Barnes, in splitting time, have largely struggled to generate consistent offense to support one of the best defensive units in the country.

    So the senior is an agile, dart-throwing X-factor for No. 18 USC (6-1, 4-0) on Saturday, earning so much respect after two dynamite performances in wins over the Trojans last year that defensive coordinator Grinch said “he’s one of those guys you circle going into the year.”

    “You kinda assume, at some point, he’s going to be out there,” Grinch said Tuesday. “If it’s this Saturday, I don’t know.”

    The fate of not only Utah’s season, but USC’s as well, may rest on Rising’s knee. If he magically suits up at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a clean bill of health, he’ll instantly make Utah favorites against a Trojans secondary that held strong against Notre Dame but has been depleted by injuries. One more loss and USC’s preseason hopes for a College Football Playoff are washed away, along with a thin silver lining of an undefeated Pac-12 record.

    “One big win against a really good football team here next week,” Riley said after USC’s 48-20 loss to Notre Dame, “and this whole thing feels different.”

    If Rising continues to man the sidelines, though – opening up the possibility of a medical redshirt, which Whittingham acknowledged this week – Johnson or Barnes will have to try to keep pace against a fiery Caleb Williams, the memory of a career-worst performance against Notre Dame still fresh.

    “We took our first loss – a lot of it being on me and things like that – that I for sure use as motivation,” Williams said Wednesday.

    When Utah has the ball

    Expect weirdness.

    In Utah’s 34-14 victory over Cal last week, after Johnson at times had been used significantly in the Utes’ run game, Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig turned to safety Sione Vaki often out of a Wildcat formation – and watched him run for 158 yards and two touchdowns.

    “Any way you can manufacture production,” Whittingham said this week, “then you gotta take a look at it.”

    USC has had trouble, at times, containing scrambling quarterbacks – to make no mention of a safety-turned-running back put in strange formations. If Vaki gets a few carries again, or Johnson’s used as a designed runner, Saturday will be a test of the Trojans’ preparation under Grinch.

    When USC has the ball

    Williams’ explanation for Notre Dame was simple, and repeated: “A couple throws I always make, didn’t make.”

    There’s ample evidence building, though, that those throws haven’t connected quite as often in a generally sterling 2023 campaign. In 2022, Williams averaged 8.6 yards per attempt and threw for 14 touchdowns against zero interceptions when under pressure, per Pro Football Focus. In 2023, with the same criteria, he’s down to 7 YPA and seven touchdowns against four interceptions.

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    The type of pressure Williams faced against Notre Dame, simply put, was too overwhelming for the Houdini escapes he often pulls. And containing Utah is an even more daunting task for USC’s defensive line; the Utes are tied for fifth in the FBS in team sacks thanks largely to the breakout of junior defensive end Jonah Elliss.

    Utah’s secondary has largely been stout, too, as cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn has been targeted 28 times and allowed just 13 catches. After no pass against Notre Dame went for longer than 21 yards, USC needs a receiver – possibly Brenden Rice, possibly Tahj Washington – to be a consistently vertical threat to stretch the field.

    No. 14 Utah (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) at No. 18 USC (6-1, 4-0)

    When: 5 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

    TV/Radio: FOX/790 AM

    ​ Orange County Register