With the Bulldogs and Trojans facing off Saturday in Los Angeles, some matchups – both individuals and position groups – stand out and will likely serve as make-or-break.
Jaron Bryant vs. Michael Pittman Jr.
Senior USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. is the Trojans’ top wideout returning and arguably the best player on the team.
Fresno State defensive coordinator Bert Watts wouldn’t commit to saying that cornerback Jaron Bryant will mark Pittman Jr. the whole game, but expect to see the best on both sides compete head-to-head throughout the game.
“They have a lot of top receivers, so we’re going to make sure that we get good matchups no matter what,” Watts said. “But we’re going to take care of all of them.”
The Trojans are always very talented at the skill positions, and that’s no different this year. They boast one of the best wide receiver groups in the country.
Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns return as starters alongside Pittman Jr. The three Trojans combined for 2,182 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns with a true freshman quarterback in J.T. Daniels throwing to them. With Daniels having an offseason under his belt, Fresno State’s secondary will have its hands full with all of the matchups.
But Fresno State is particularly strong at defensive back with safeties Juju Hughes and Wylan Free, as well as cornerback Chris Gaston, which gives the Bulldogs a good chance to neutralize USC’s greatest strength.
Fresno State’s O-line vs. USC’s front seven
With quarterback Jorge Reyna making his first start, he’ll need his offensive line to produce like it did the first two years under Tedford and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb.
Although the O-line is adding multiple new pieces into the mix, the group will be thrown into the fire immediately. The Trojans front seven has more talent than any opponent the Bulldogs will face all season. And, as is typical for USC, they’re excellent at applying pressure.
“The biggest challenge is being ready for their pressure,” Grubb said.
The offensive line’s ability to protect Reyna from the pressure will determine whether or not the quarterback can get going early.
“The biggest thing is not necessarily the controlled passing game, but more making sure [Reyna’s] comfortable, which is the goal of the offensive line,” Grubb said. “Every week is get him comfortable early so he can play his game. Not let them dictate what we’re going to do.”
Derrion Grim and Co. vs. young USC cornerbacks
Aside from Derrion Grim, the Bulldogs wide receivers are a very young group with little game experience.
Good thing for them though, the cornerbacks they’ll line up against are in the same boat.
“It’s going to be a young vs young matchup,” Grubb said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys out there. They’ve got some inexperience out there. It will be, I’m sure, exciting for both programs to see what some of the younger players can do.”
Although it’s likely two freshmen start at cornerback for the Trojans, Grim said he’ll approach them just like he approaches every opponent because they could have great technique, even though they lack game experience.
“I never underestimate anybody,” Grim said. “I go in thinking that they’re the number one dudes in the country. I will pull out everything. Even if they had experience, even if they don’t, I’m going to treat them the same. I’m never going to downplay a person because I don’t know what they do, how much they work.”
Jared Rice vs. whoever covers him
Getting Jared Rice going early will be key for Fresno State, but USC can make life tough for Reyna in his first start if the Trojans keep Rice under control.
Tight ends are often a safety net for quarterbacks, giving them a reliable target and an opportunity to get the ball rolling. Rice fits right in that category as the leading returning receiver on the Bulldogs.
Grubb called Rice an extremely important part of the offense, and no matter what the defense throws at the Bulldogs, the tight end will be involved.
Whether USC has a linebacker, safety or cornerback cover Rice, if the Bulldogs want Reyna to gain early confidence, Rice will be the go-to guy.
Bert Watts vs. Graham Harrell
Watts fielded one of the best defenses in the country last season, but will face a fast-paced and high-powered offense that’s stacked with talent, arguably more than any opponent the Bulldogs faced last season.
Graham Harrell comes to USC as the new offensive coordinator after coaching in the same role at North Texas for the last three seasons. He brings the Air Raid offense to USC, which is unheard of for the Trojans.
“Anytime you start a new game here when you have a new coordinator like this, you have to be prepared for everything,” Watts said. “I know when he was at North Texas he was extremely balanced, almost 50-50 [passing-running], so we’ll be ready for whatever we get.”
If Harrell struggles to get the offense going early, Watts will have the defense ready to pounce and set the tone from the first snap.
“Effort, that’s our number one thing,” Watts said. “We want to see guys running their butts to the ball every single play. So as long as we have that, we’ll make up for any other factors that come up.”