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USC, Utah's opponent Saturday, is a little more pass-first than run-first these days

SALT LAKE CITY — USC’s offense has gained some momentum during its current three-game win streak. The Trojans enter Saturday’s game at Utah having scored 94 points over victories against Washington State (39-36), Arizona (24-20) and Colorado (31-20). It’s a marked improvement in comparison to the 60 scored in a win over UNLV (43-21) and losses to Stanford (17-3) and Texas (37-14).

Freshman quarterback JT Daniels has come of age of late. In USC’s wins over the Cougars, Wildcats and Buffaloes, he’s completed 51 passes for 721 yards and six touchdowns.

Top targets include freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, who leads the Trojans with 29 receptions. Sophomore Tyler Vaughns is second with 28. Other standouts include junior Michael Pittman Jr., and sophomore Velus Jones Jr., who have 17 and 12 catches, respectively.

“They have an outstanding corps of receivers. They’re talented, they’re athletic, they’re fast and they’ve got depth,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who noted that USC has six or seven receivers that they use. “So it doesn’t surprise me a bit that they’ve become more or less a pass-first team, not dramatically like Washington State or something like that — but they definitely are throwing the ball, they’re throwing it a lot.”

Whittingham, however, added that the Trojans are far from being one-dimensional.

“They’ve got a run game. They still make an effort to run the football. They just haven’t been putting up quite the numbers that a typical SC would put in the running game,” he said.

Senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware leads USC with 358 yards rushing through six games. Sophomore Stephen Carr isn’t far back with 296.

The pace, though, is well off the USC standard set back in the day by the likes of Marcus Allen (2,427 yards) and Charles White (2,050) and more recently by Ronald Jones (1,550 yards in 2017).

Even so, one-dimensional isn’t a term the Utes use to define USC’s offense.

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley doesn’t believe it.

“No,” he said. “Have you seen their wide receivers? I’d throw the ball, too. They’re really good. They’ve got good backs. They’ve got good linemen, athletic linemen. They’re choosing right now to throw the ball a little bit more and with all the big plays that they’re getting from their wideouts I can see a little bit why.”

Southern California wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (8), right, runs against Colorado during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Southern California wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (8), right, runs against Colorado during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP

USC’s receivers, Scalley acknowledged, may be one of the best groups the Utes will face all season long.

“So it’s a good challenge for our defensive backs. It’s all about pass defense efficiency. Teams are going to get their yards throwing the ball. If we’re having success stopping the run, they’re going to get their yards somewhere,” he said. “We just have to be efficient when they are throwing the ball — low completion percentage, making sure we’re getting batted balls, making sure that we’re keeping that rating down.”

Utah enters the game leading the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense (108.20 rating). The Utes are also first in rushing defense (74.8 ypg), total defense (300 ypg) and scoring defense (tied, 16 ppg).

USC, meanwhile, has some defensive stalwarts as well — even without former Salem Hills star Porter Gustin, who had seven sacks on the season before being sidelined for the year with a fractured ankle in Saturday’s win over Colorado.

Southern California linebacker Cameron Smith (35) in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Southern California linebacker Cameron Smith (35) in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
AP

Senior Cameron Smith, who is questionable with a hamstring injury that kept him out last week, has quite a history against the Utes — 31 tackles and four interceptions. He has a team-high 47 tackles this season. Another senior, defensive back Ajene Harris, is another key contributor with three career pick-sixes, including one in Saturday’s triumph over Colorado.

On the local front, former Bingham High star Jay Tufele has two tackles for loss, including a sack, as a freshman on the defensive line.

• • •

USC (4-2, 3-1)

at Utah (4-2, 2-2)

Rice-Eccles Stadium

Saturday, 6 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700AM