By RossWB on December 27, 2019 at 11:26 am
fight on
© Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

WHO: #22 USC Trojans (8-4, 7-2 Pac 12)
WHEN: Friday, December 27, 2019
WHERE: SDCCU Stadium (San Diego, CA)
KICKOFF: 7:00 PM Central
RADIO: Hawkeye Sports Network (check local listings); TuneIn
Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt, Jenny Taft
ODDS: Iowa -2.0 
WEATHER: Clear skies, temperatures in the mid-50s


It's not good! USC leads the all-time series 7-2 and they've won the last six meetings in a row. The most recent meeting, of course, came almost 17 years ago, when Iowa and USC tangled in the 2003 Orange Bowl after Iowa's magical 2002 season. USC used a big second half to roll to a 38-17 win in that game. USC beat Iowa four times in the 1970s -- by a combined score of 171-19. Iowa's only wins over USC came in 1950 (a 20-14 win in Los Angeles) and 1961 (a 35-34 thriller also in Los Angeles). 


No need to reinvent the wheel here -- just read Mike's post on USC's season-to-date from earlier this week. 


This isn't quite a vintage USC offense -- but it's still a very potent one. They ranked 34th nationally with 33.2 points per game. They were held under 24 points just once all year (a 14-point outing against Washington) and scored 30+ points in eight games. The strength of USC's offense comes through the air; they rank sixth nationally in passing offense at 335.9 yards per game and fifth nationally in completion percentage (71%). It hasn't been all short, easy passes to boost that completion number, though -- their 8.7 yards per attempt ranks 14th nationally. The one weakness for USC's passing game? It's been a bit turnover-prone, as they have 14 interceptions; fewer than 20 teams nationally threw that many picks. Then again, USC QBs also threw interceptions on just 3% of their total passes, so it might not be that big of a concern. 

The main QB for USC all season has been Kedon Slovis, who stepped in after incumbent starter JT Daniels went down with a season-ending injury early in the year. Slovis, a freshman, has proved to be a more-than-capable replacement, going 260/362 for 3242 yards (71.8% completion), with 28 touchdowns and just 9 interceptions. Pretty dazzling stuff for a guy making his college football debut. Of course, Slovis benefited from having one of greatest collections of receivers in college football. His main target was Michael Pittman, Jr., a 6'4", 220 lb senior who had jaw-dropping numbers: 94 receptions, 1222 yards, and 11 touchdowns. He was especially good to end the season, as he averaged 12.3 receptions per game, 143.3 yards per game, and a touchdown per game in USC's final three contests. Y I K E S.

Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns are extremely capable sidekicks to Pittman as well. St. Brown had 68 receptions for 879 yards and six touchdowns, while Vaughns had 68 catches for 858 yards and six scores. Even USC's #4 WR, Drake London, had 35 catches for 533 yards and four touchdowns. Slowing that group down is going to be one hell of a challenge for Iowa's secondary. This is probably the best collection of WR talent Iowa has faced since... maybe Ohio State in 2017? 

USC is legendary for their running backs, but their transition to more of an Air Raid offense has come at the expense of their halfbacks. USC was just 112th nationally in rushing this year, at 126.3 yards per game. Their 4.1 yards per carry average was 85th nationally (and essentially the same as Iowa's own blah 4.0 yards per carry average this year). USC did have five games this season with 171 or more rushing yards, though, so they weren't totally inept at running the ball. Their leading rusher on the year was Vavae Malepeal, who had 466 yards and six touchdowns on 97 carries (4.8 ypc). Kenon Christon (68 carries, 373 yards, 5.5 ypc, 2 TD) and Stephen Carr (67 carries, 372 yards, 5.5 ypc, 4 TD) were fairly capable deputies for Malepeal as well. 

USC hasn't been especially proficient in the red zone this year. They scored on 42 of 50 trips inside an opponent's 20-yard line, an 84% conversion rate that was 63rd nationally. 31 of those 50 trips ended in touchdowns, a 62% conversion rate that was 58th nationally. Iowa beat a high-scoring Minnesota team by holding their offense to field goals on several trips earlier this season; a similar approach might contribute to a victory on Friday night.  


USC's dominance in the '00s was built on impenetrable defenses overloaded with future NFL talent. That isn't quite the case with the 2019 Trojan defense. They rank 65th nationally after allowing 27.8 points per game and gave up 28 or more points in six of 12 games. They allowed 415.2 yards per game, which ranked 84th nationally. They were especially leaky against the pass, allowing 248.9 yards per game (99th nationally) and a 60.9% completion percentage. They allowed 22 touchdowns and forced just 9 interceptions. They weren't super-stout against the run, either, allowing 166.3 yards per game and 16 TD on 4.6 yards per carry. Hopefully Iowa's often-anemic offense can find some success against USC's not-that-stout defense. 

Another sign that this isn't your older brother's USC defense? They had just three All-Pac 12 performers, DL Jay Tufele (1st team), DL Drake Jackson (2nd team), and DB Talanoa Hufanga (2nd team). Tufele, a 6'3", 305 lb DT, had 39 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks and was a disruptive force in the middle of USC's defensive line. Jackson, a 6'4", 275 defensive end, had an excellent freshman season, with 41 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks. His match-up with Tristan Wirfs (or Alaric Jackson) could be a pivotal one for the game. Hufanga was second on the team with 76 tackles (5.5 TFL) and 3 pass break-ups. LB John Houston, Jr. led the team with 100 tackles, while DB Isaiah Pola-Mao led the team with 4 interceptions and DB Olaijah Griffin led the team with 9 pass break-ups. 


The battle in the trenches is obviously a pivotal one in pretty much every game, especially for a team built like Iowa, and that's likely to be true in this game as well. If Iowa is able to run the ball with some effectiveness against USC, it will likely give them a huge boost in being able to win the game. But the most intriguing match-up of the game looks like Iowa's pass defense against USC's pass offense. Can Iowa's pass rush force Slovis into some mistakes and bad throws? Can the secondary slow down USC's remarkable collection of WRs? The team that wins those battles will probably win the game. 


A Holiday Bowl hokey-pokey. No more, no less.


The big question for me about this game: how many points can Iowa manage to score? It doesn't feel like this is a game Iowa can strangle the life out of and try to win 17-14. USC's offense just feels too explosive -- they're going to make some big plays and get some points. Iowa will need to limit that somewhat -- we're not going to win a 38-35-type game -- but how much can Iowa do on the other side of the ball? Can Iowa's offense score 28-31 points? It feels like it might take that many points to win this game. USC's defense can be had -- they leaked a lot of yards and quite a few points this year -- but we've seen Iowa's offense struggle to get things going against weak defenses in countless Big Ten games this season. Facing a vulnerable defense is no guarantee that Iowa's offense will be able to do much. Hopefully Brian Ferentz has a strong gameplan and Nate Stanley, Tyler Goodson, Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and everyone on the offense plays one of their best games of the season. It's going to take a great game from them to win this game. But I think Iowa is going to be motivated by their first Holiday Bowl trip in 30 years, as well as the emotion surrounding the passing of Hayden Fry, and I think they're going to find a way to get it done. 

IOWA 29, USC 24

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