October 23, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) Southern California knows how to stop the run, allowing just 93.2 yards rushing per game in Pac-12 play.

Anyone who saw Boston College gash the No. 20 Trojans for 452 yards rushing probably has a different impression of their defense.

Either the perception or performance of the USC run defense will change Saturday night after facing No. 19 Utah and an emerging star in running back Devontae Booker.

''That will never happen again. Ever,'' linebacker Su'a Cravens said of the dreadful showing against the Eagles. ''We made mistakes against Boston College that we never make, and since then we've been pretty good in (defending) the run.''

Following the upset loss at Boston College, USC held its next three opponents to 77 yards rushing or less, a streak halted by Colorado last weekend. The Buffaloes rushed for 172 yards in the Trojans' record-setting 56-28 win, gaining 105 yards in the second half when the game had long since been decided.

First-year coach Steve Sarkisian cited a better understanding of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's scheme, a deeper rotation to keep starters fresh and a change in attitude following the Boston College embarrassment.

That new outlook will be tested by Booker. Ask any USC player or coach about the junior and they will empty the thesaurus to describe Booker's physicality and toughness.

''I think he runs angry,'' Sarkisian said. ''He almost appears to get stronger as the game goes on, and as you start to arm-tackle him, that's when he starts breaking those arm tackles and creating big plays.''

Booker, a junior-college transfer who was originally committed to Washington State out of high school, is averaging 187.7 yards rushing in conference games and has scored five touchdowns.

''He runs hard,'' Cravens added. ''That's the one thing you can see immediately on film. He doesn't go down on the first hit.''

The Utah offense hasn't just run through Booker: it has been completely reliant on him as its passing game all but disappeared. Quarterbacks Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson have rotated in and out of the lineup during the past two games, combining to throw for 162 yards in wins at UCLA and Oregon State.

That shift in productivity echoes the evolution of the Utah offense in recent years. Once early adopters of the spread under former coach Urban Meyer, the Utes have become a ''physical, downhill running team,'' Sarkisian said.

And with Booker coming off a 229-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Beavers, the run takes clear precedence over the pass.

''We're not really going to focus on what quarterback is in the game or do things differently,'' Cravens said. ''They are going to do the same things with both quarterbacks. We just got to be ready to play.''

Sarkisian said controlling the line of scrimmage will be vital to keeping Booker from creating explosive plays, while safety Gerald Bowman noted the need to tackle well for USC to continue its strong play against the run.

''The guys are just locked in,'' Bowman said. ''We knew what we were capable of. We're not there quite yet, but we know our potential.''

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