USC, Arizona each seeking answers

Arizona is 1-3 after facing three top-10 opponents, but USC players and coaches believe that record isn't reflective of how good they really are.

Trying to get a read on USC? Good luck.

Are they the team that barely snuck past a lousy Minnesota team, or the gritty Trojans that did just enough to upend Utah, a win that looks much better after the Utes' thumping of in-state rival BYU in the Holy War? Are they the group that demolished Syracuse, or self-destructed at Arizona State?

Any answers are unlikely to come this Saturday at the Coliseum against Arizona (12:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net), struggling with its own identity crisis.

The Wildcats are 1-3, 0-2 in Pac-12 play, and have been bombed by 75 points in their losses. Mike Stoops' normally stout defense ranks 106th nationally in points allowed, 112th in yards allowed, and 114th against the run. Their own ground attack hasn't been able to get on track, averaging 62.3 yards per game, numbers deflated by 12 sacks allowed.

But those three defeats came to elite opposition in Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon, all ranked in the top 10 when Arizona played them and viable challenges for their respective conference championships and perhaps even the BCS title with dynamic offenses and top-tier quarterback play. Their own passing offense hasn't missed a beat, fifth in the nation and averaging 372.5 yards per game, as quarterback Nick Foles has used the deepest receiving corps in the Pac-12 to total 10 touchdowns with no interceptions.

So is Arizona really bad, their opponents really good, or some combination of the two?

"In no way does their 1-3 record show what type of team they are," linebacker Chris Galippo said.

Even if they are indeed that horrid, USC (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) isn't in the position to take them lightly given their own struggles on pass defense. Arizona State gutted the secondary with an array of screens, as the back seven struggled to shed blocks and tackle in the open field.

"We have to I call it keep the cup, keep your leverage," assistant head coach Monte Kiffin said. "Sometimes we came up and had it but the next guy was too far away to make the tackle. Don't put yourself in position where you got good receivers in open space. You got to make sure you are on the details so you don't get caught on the bubbles or the flare routes or whatever they are, so when they catch the ball you can make the tackle and not be out of position.

"You look at yards after contact, we gave up too many YAC yards, that's for sure."

That has been an area where Arizona thrives, relying on its physically gifted receivers starting with senior Juron Criner. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, he looks the part of the new breed of NFL No. 1 receiver and is a likely first-round pick.

Criner can out-muscle and out-jump defensive backs, but has elite speed as well. In 41 career games, he has caught 146 passes for 2,102 yards and 23 touchdowns, including the game-winner against USC two years ago.

"He is fast," Galippo said. "He runs great routes. Yards after the catch is one of his strong points."

"He's a beast for sure."

Defending Criner, senior David Douglas, and junior Dan Buckner, a transfer from Texas, will be more of a challenge without corner Torin Harris, who injured his shoulder last week.

The lanky and long-armed Harris, who has struggled at times but also recorded the team's only interception this season to secure the win over Minnesota, did not practice this week and is unlikely to play.

That will likely put 5-foot-9 redshirt freshman Anthony Brown in the starting lineup.

USC head coach Lane Kiffin has described the play of the secondary as "up and down," pointing to the lack of takeaways.

"At the same time, we have limited explosive plays compared to a year ago," he added. "We have improved there. We just need to tackle better and make some significant plays on the ball."

Given how Foles and Arizona have avoided turnovers, losing one fumble in four games, it seems like just one more question that won't be answered this week. Top Stories