Five questions facing Texas on Saturday night against USC:
1. Can USC cover Collin Johnson (this time)?
Johnson made a name for himself last year in Los Angeles as he turned seven receptions into 191 yards in a double-overtime loss. In UT’s history, only Jordan Shipley (273 yards vs. UCF in 2009), Tony Jones (242 yards vs. Pitt in 1987) and Johnny “Lam” Jones (198 yards vs. Baylor in 1979) have had more receiving yards in a game. The 6-6, 220-pound junior is back and averaging 13.7 yards on seven catches this season. The Trojans are allowing only 140 passing yards per game, though neither UNLV nor Stanford are known for throwing the football.
2. Will Texas get a sack?
Texas returned six starters from a defense that averaged 2.4 sacks per game in 2017. That experience, however, has yet to pay dividends this fall. Cornerback Kris Boyd has Texas’ only sack through two games, and that came in the opener. Maryland and Tulsa quarterbacks have attempted 60 passes against the Longhorns. Maybe Texas is hoping that history repeats itself; the Longhorns sacked USC’s Sam Darnold three times but headed into that 2017 matchup with only two sacks through its first two games.
3. Will the Trojans get to Sam Ehlinger?
On the flip side, opposing defenses haven’t been able to rough up Ehlinger, either. The sophomore’s ability to get out of trouble and scramble combined with solid play from the offensive line has produced just one sack allowed. Consider that an improvement; Texas ranked 103rd in the country last year in sacks allowed (2.6 per game). USC sacked Ehlinger five times in last year’s game. The Trojans are led by senior linebacker Porter Gustin, who has 15.5 career sacks. “When you do start to block him, he doesn’t stay blocked very long,” UT coach Tom Herman said this week.
4. Will punting continue to be a concern?
Texas became spoiled having Michael Dickson, last year’s Ray Guy Award winner as the country’s best punter. Freshman Ryan Bujcevski had some big shoes to fill. Dickson’s cousin has had mixed results in his first two games. He’s averaging 37.3 yards per punt, which ranks fourth in the Big 12. He’s had notable flubs in both of the first two games, and Tulsa blocked one of his kicks. Herman, though, is standing by Bujcevski so there’s likely no need to read up on backup Jack Geiger.
“We probably spooked him a little bit, obviously, and you got a guy that’s playing in (his) second American football game ever and you got somebody running clean and putting a hand on his foot,” Herman said Monday. “So we got to do a much better job coaching our guys in protection and so that he can feel more comfortable back there.”
5. Will Herman get his first big win at Texas?
When he was at Houston, Herman impressed the nation by going 6-0 against ranked teams, including a 2015 Peach Bowl win over Florida State and a win over No. 3 Oklahoma in the 2016 season opener. He’s 1-4 against ranked teams so far at Texas; the Longhorns did knock off No. 24 West Virginia last year, but his first season was marred by close losses to No. 4 USC (27-24, double overtime), No. 10 Oklahoma State (13-10, overtime) and No. 12 Oklahoma (29-24). The Trojans check in at No. 22 this week, but a prime-time win over a big-name opponent still would signify progress after UT’s so-so start against Maryland and Tulsa.