It’s been Lincoln Riley’s Achilles’ heel dating back to his Oklahoma days.

By nearly all metrics, USC’s defense is in the bottom third in the country. Riley is an offensive mastermind, but USC’s defense, coached by Alex Grinch, has been handicapping the Trojans’ College Football Playoff hopes.

The Trojans are No. 96 of 130 FBS teams in points allowed per game (30), No. 89 in passing yards allowed (244.6) and No. 82 in rushing yards allowed (152.4).

Last Saturday, in a 48-20 loss to Notre Dame, USC’s defense was put at a disadvantage by five turnovers, a rarity for the Trojans, which it couldn’t overcome. But usually, the Trojans’ offense is putting up otherworldly numbers — USC ranks No. 2 in the nation, just behind Oregon, in points per game, scoring an average of 47.3 per contest.

Facing a defense ranked in the bottom third of FBS teams in points allowed last week, the Utes’ offense finally woke up, posting a season-high 445 yards of offense in a 34-14 win over Cal.

The Utes are still far from full strength on offense — quarterback Cam Rising, tight end Brant Kuithe are still yet to play and tight end Thomas Yassmin, wide receiver Mycah Pittman, running back Micah Bernard and running back Chris Curry are out for the season.

Even with all of those absences against Cal, Utah was able to find something that worked.

The Utes went back to quarterback Bryson Barnes, who turned in an efficient performance completing 15 of 21 passes for 128 yards, adding 50 yards and a score on the ground. That, in turn with the offensive line’s best performance of the season, helped open up the run game.

Utes on the air

No. 14 Utah (5-1)
at No. 18 USC (6-1)
Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT
LA Memorial Coliseum
TV: Fox
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM

Ja’Quinden Jackson ran for 94 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, but Utah, running thin on running back depth, turned to safety Sione Vaki. Vaki rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns, including a 72-yard score to ice the game.

“Obviously adds a real dynamic to the offense that’s we’ve lacked. I think he’s a great counter punch. JJs such a powerful runner, very good inside runner, but the decisiveness and explosiveness of Sione was on display on Saturday and we look to build on that package moving forward,” Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said.

Vaki will have a big role on Saturday. He’ll play both ways again, and his partner in the backfield, Cole Bishop, is out for the first half against the Trojans due to a targeting penalty in the second half of the Cal game.

“It’s a big task being a two-way player, but he’s the man for the job. Until coach Whitt says don’t give him the ball anymore, we’re going to keep giving him the ball,” Ludwig said.

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With USC averaging 47.3 points per contest — and that’s without playing an FCS team this year — Utah’s phenomenal defense will have its hands full. The Trojans have only been kept below 40 points once this season, and it took five USC turnovers.

Let’s say Utah plays a good defensive game, holding USC to 31 points — 16.3 points below the Trojans’ season average. Utah’s only passed the 31-point mark once this season, which was last week against Cal. In Utah’s five contests before that, the Utes were averaging 19.8 points per game. Assuming Rising and Kuithe remain out, it’ll be a tall order for an offense without its two best players.

While the run game will set the tone for the Utes, Barnes has to be more productive throwing the ball if the Utes want to win for the second time in a row at the Coliseum.

“We’ve got to generate more explosive plays. It’s hard to grind it out now like we’ve been doing and the passing game’s got to be much more productive,” Ludwig said.

Grinch’s defense can get pressure on the quarterback — USC has 22 sacks on the year, ranking 16th in the country — so the offensive line will have to continue its play from the Cal game and Barnes will have to make quick decisions.

“It’s just going through it, making the right reads, trusting what you’re seeing and just taking what the defense is giving you,” Barnes said.

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With some of Utahs top targets out, one player who Utah’s hoping to get more involved is Munir McClain, who returned from an injury sustained in the Weber State game vs. Cal, where he had a 41-yard reception.

“He’s a bigger body. He played tight end here for a little bit and made the transition back to receiver. So when you have a bigger, heavier guy like that, being able to move the way he does, it definitely creates mismatches on the perimeter with the cornerbacks, who are a lot lighter than he is,” Barnes said.

With Pittman and Yassmin done for the season, McClain, a transfer from USC, could see more targets against his old team.

“We know we can do it. We know we’re a great team and it does give us confidence going into this week of us coming off a win,” McClain said.

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