College Football Week 5: Shedeur Sanders and Colorado look to upset Caleb Williams and USC

2RN5JY7 Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams walks off the field during the second half of an NCAA college football game against San Jose State in Los Angeles, Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

• USC has the upper hand on the ground: USC’s FBS-leading 94.3 rushing grade could prove overwhelming for a Colorado team that currently owns the 10th-worst run-defense grade in the country.

• Can Shedeur Sanders reduce the number of sacks he takes? Sanders has taken 23 sacks this season, the most in the nation — and at least four in every game. He also has just three throwaways on the year.

• Dig into the numbers for yourself: PFF's Premium Stats is the most in-depth collection of NFL and NCAA player performance data. Subscribe today to get full access!

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes


College football’s fifth full week features perhaps the most anticipated quarterback duel of the season. Caleb Williams and the USC Trojans travel to square off with Shedeur Sanders and the upstart Colorado Buffaloes.

Despite Colorado’s blowout loss in Oregon last week, there should be no shortage of excitement for this week’s matchup with the Trojans. Elite quarterbacks, dynamic weapons and an electric atmosphere will define this game, so let's examine those factors and others that could play into why each team could win.


Elite Quarterback play

Two of the top five quarterbacks in the country will duke it out in Boulder, Colorado. 2022 Heisman winner Caleb Williams has been spectacular again in his quest to become just the second player ever to win the award multiple times.

Shedeur Sanders has been brilliant at the FBS level after two excellent seasons at Jackson State. A comparison of both players’ performance this season reveals an even matchup.

Caleb Williams vs. Shedeur Sanders
Caleb Williams Shedeur Sanders
Overall Grade 91.1 (5th) 92.1 (3rd)
Passing Grade 90.4 (7th) 91.8 (4th)
Passing Yards 1,214 (12th) 1,409 (2nd)
Passing TDs 15 (2nd) 11 (T-8th)
Interceptions 0 (T-1st) 1 (T-14th)
NFL Passer Rating 152.3 (1st) 119.5 (18th)
Big-Time Throws 9 (T-17th) 11 (T-6th)

Williams has long been lauded for his ability to improvise. He led the country with an 85.5 overall grade and 14 big-time throws under pressure last season. If he breaks the pocket, he is a constant big-play threat and can make any throw off any platform.

It’s tough to see him make such throws and not compare him to the master of improvisation himself, Patrick Mahomes.

Despite Williams’ obvious prowess on the move, Colorado can stay in the game by forcing him into these situations. Williams has uncharacteristically struggled this year when the pressure is on.

Caleb Williams Under Pressure | 2023
Grade/Total
Passing Grade 34.9
Completion % 50%
Big-Time Throws 2
Turnover-Worthy Plays 5

After leading the nation in pressured passing grade in 2022, he suddenly sits outside the top 100 in that category this season. His five turnover-worthy plays, including three last week at Arizona State, are also one more than he committed all of last season. If Williams continues to carry this newfound gunslinger mentality, he may keep lesser opponents in games, including the Arizona State Sun Devils in Week 4.

As for Sanders, we’ve already gone over his incredible ability to read coverages at a high level. He seems to have no distinct weakness to pick on as long as his team holds up their end of the bargain.

Shedeur Sanders Passing Grades | 2023
Grade
Clean Pocket 92.8
Pressured 77.2
No Blitz 91.3
Blitz 86.9
Man Coverage 90.6
Zone Coverage 90.3

Every number above ranks in the top 10 in college football, with the exception of the zone coverage grade, which is 16th. Fittingly, Sanders is also one of the 10 most accurate passers in the nation.

So, what could be a weak spot for Sanders? While his penchant for avoiding turnovers keeps the Buffaloes in games, it comes with a habit of taking sacks.

Sanders has taken 23 sacks this season, the most in the nation — and at least four in every game. He also has just three throwaways on the year. He is at least partially responsible for 20 of the team's allowed quarterback pressures and eight of those 23 sacks against him. Both figures lead the FBS.

If USC doesn’t experience any breakdowns in coverage, it seems that Sanders will hold the ball long enough for the Trojans' third-ranked pass-rush unit to get home.

USC has balance. Can Colorado match it?

USC is able, in part, to be so efficient because they have balance. While they aren’t thought to be masters of the run game, they certainly incorporate it enough for it to be a threat.

Meanwhile, Colorado has struggled to find success on the ground, as evidenced by the fact that they have yet to have a ball carrier crack 60 yards in a game this season. Left unchanged, this contrast could be the difference between the two teams on Saturday.

USC vs. Colorado Rushing Stats | 2023
USC Colorado
Rush Yards Per Game 192.0 55.8
Yards Per Carry 6.9 1.9
Rushing Grade 94.3 69.9
EPA Per Rush 0.303 -0.119

USC’s FBS-leading 94.3 rushing grade could prove overwhelming for a Colorado team that currently owns the 10th-worst run-defense grade in the country.

PFF’s Max Chadwick recently opined that this could be the nationally televised breakout for their lead back, Marshawn Lloyd. Lloyd’s 91.5 rushing grade leads all FBS running backs, and he has forced 16 missed tackles on 38 carries.

Lloyd is allowed to use his excellent speed in the clip above because USC executes its counter scheme at a high level. In fact, the Trojans have the fifth-best overall offensive grade in the nation when running counter.

They’ll lean into that even more this week after Colorado struggled with Oregon, the nation’s best counter-running team, deploying similar schemes en route to a 45.0 run-defense grade against them. They carry an identical grade for the season against counter, which ranks sixth worst in the FBS.

The Buffaloes also have a back with game-breaking speed, yet he’s been underutilized so far. Dylan Edwards is averaging just seven carries per game, which is puzzling, given that we’ve seen him make several explosive plays this season.

Edwards’ speed should be used to threaten the edges of defenses. On just 11 off-tackle carries, he has gained 90 yards this season. Meanwhile, USC’s 63.8 run-defense grade on such plays ranks just inside the top 100 in college football.

Arizona State found ways to expose the Trojans on the outside last week, rushing for 88 yards on 13 carries on plays that went off-tackle. If Colorado is going to find balance in the run game, it starts with Edwards breaking contain.

Do either of these secondaries stand a chance?

The easy answer is probably not. But if either of these teams are to find success on defense, it will start with terrific safety play.

The Trojans feature Calen Bullock, the 45th-ranked player on PFF’s 2024 big board, at free safety. Bullock’s 88.8 coverage grade ranks second among Pac-12 safeties and sixth nationally. He also owns four pass breakups and has allowed a 0.0 NFL passer rating into his coverage.

Bullock may be the best pure free safety in college football. He flies to the football and his six interceptions are the second most among Power Five safeties since the start of 2022. Watching him and Shedeur Sanders match wits in the passing game should be fun.

On the other side, while Shilo Sanders is the biggest name among Colorado safeties, one of the few holdovers from the 2022 squad has been the star of the show.

Trevor Woods, the highest-graded Buffaloes defender last season, leads the team again this year despite all of the new teammates surrounding him. His 79.4 overall grade and 82.4 coverage grade both rank in the top five among Pac-12 safeties, just behind Bullock.

Given that Travis Hunter, possibly college football’s best cornerback, is still sidelined, excellence at the safety position is of the utmost importance to Colorado. Trevor Woods has been leading that charge so far.

Third Phase Danger?

One other interesting nugget found in preparation for this game is that Colorado owns the lowest special teams grade in the Power Five (44.9).

Their eight missed tackles on special teams are the most in the Pac-12, and that could be an issue against Zachariah Branch, arguably the country’s most dangerous kick returner.

Through five weeks, the electric freshman is the only FBS player with multiple return touchdowns. His ability to affect games no matter how he gets the ball is a serious problem for anyone facing the Trojans.

USC can present Colorado with incredible obstacles in all three phases of the game. If the Buffaloes are to keep things close in Boulder, they’ll need to be more prepared, balanced and disciplined than in prior games.

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