Arizona Preview

After upsetting the Ducks, Arizona is thinking about a Pac-12 title. Can the Trojans rebound from a stunning loss to derail the Wildcats’ hopes?

Game 6: ‘Dream Beneath a Desert Sky’

The USC Trojans (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12 South) visit Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday, October 11 to face the Arizona Wildcats (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12 South), freshly ranked No. 10 by the Associated Press (AP) and No. 13 by USA Today. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. PDT in Arizona Stadium and in front of a national ESPN2 cable television audience. It’s the 38th meeting between the schools with USC owning a 29-8 edge, including victories in 10 of the past 12. The Trojans held off the Wildcats, 38-31, a season ago in Los Angeles (in Ed Orgeron’s debut as interim coach), but Arizona stunned then-No. 10 USC, 39-36, in the last Tucson meeting in 2012.

The teams’ results a week ago couldn’t be more emotionally divergent. USC’s defense watched helplessly as Jaelen Strong hauled in a 46-yard Hail Mary TD pass from Mike Bercovici on the game’s final play in a 38-34 Arizona State victory at the Coliseum. The Trojans had led, 34-25, with three minutes to play before a series of gaffes put the Devils in position to make a last-gasp throw for the end zone. Meanwhile, the Wildcats posted four lengthy second-half touchdown drives and sacked Heisman Trophy frontrunner Marcus Mariota five times in a 31-24 upset of then-No. 2 Oregon in Eugene.

Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (3-2 at USC, 37-31 career) is in his first season at the helm after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). Arizona headman Rich Rodriguez (141-94-2 in 21 seasons as a collegiate head coach, 21-10 at Arizona) is in his third season with the Wildcats. Known for potent running offenses, Rodriguez looked like he had some big shoes to fill after losing two-time consensus All-America tailback Ka’Deem Carey to the NFL while also plugging in yet another brand new quarterback, but Arizona has responded well thus far – surviving a down performance against Cal with a game-ending Hail Mary of its own before, once again, shocking the Ducks.

Arizona Offense

Co-offensive coordinators Calvin Magee (who also handles the running backs) and Rod Smith (quarterbacks) are charged with running Rodriguez’s fast-paced, zone-read scheme. And, so far in 2014, the Wildcats have been rather impressive statistically. Arizona ranks in the national top 30 in every key offensive category, including 20th in scoring – 39.8 points per game. The Cats’ 224 rushing yards per game leads the Pac-12, while Arizona also averages 350 passing yards per game, which ranks seventh nationally. While the Wildcat brain trust faced replacing a quarterback for the third straight season, it appears they won’t have a similar issue anytime soon, as redshirt freshman Anu Solomon has seized control of the job. He’s already thrown for 1,741 yards, with 14 TDs and just four interceptions. He’s also rushed 51 times (3.3 average). He does have some accuracy issues from time to time and can hold on to the ball a tad longer than necessary, leading to his being sacked 11 times. But he is rather composed for his age – see last week’s game winning drive at Autzen Stadium – and can be explosive. In leading the Wildcats back from a 28-6 halftime deficit to beat Cal, he set several school records: pass completions (47) and attempts (73), as well as passing yards (520) and total offense (566).

A surprisingly solid duo at running back – freshman Nick Wilson and senior Terris Jones-Grigsby – have helped him immensely. Wilson’s been a big surprise, averaging 6.4 yards per carry with six TDs. He leads the Cats with 574 rushing yards and has also caught eight passes, including a key TD grab against Oregon (one of his three scores against the Ducks). Jones-Grigsby missed a pair of games due to an injury, but was the crucial workhorse at Oregon, where he had 115 yards on 27 carries, including a number of key third-down conversions. He, too, is a threat in the passing attack, with seven catches for an average of 16.4 yards.

Sophomore Cayleb Jones, a transfer from Texas, has energized the Arizona receiving corps. Solomon’s favorite target, Jones is sizeable (6’3”) and fast. He leads the Cats with 32 grabs, a 16.4 per-catch average and six TDs. Diminutive sophomore slot man Nate Phillips is a move-the-chains type and is second on the team with 20 catches. Always dangerous senior Austin Hill is back after missing 2013 with a knee injury and has three TDs among 18 grabs, while sophomores Samajie Grant (15 catches out of the slot) and Trey Griffey (10 catches and – yes, go ahead and feel old – son of Ken Griffey Jr.) also see time.

With all the youth and inexperience the Wildcats have at the skill positions, a veteran line has produced so far, led by four-year starters Mickey Baucus at left tackle and Fabbians Ebbele at right tackle. Senior center Steven Gurrola is another returning starter, as is junior left guard Cayman Bundage. At right guard, junior Lene Maiava is splitting time with promising redshirt freshman Jacob Alsadek.

Arizona Defense

Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s group has had a bit of a rocky start to 2014, which wasn’t wholly unexpected due to some major losses in the front seven. However, it’s been an experienced secondary that’s struggled the most. The Wildcats rank 10th in the Pac-12 in pass defense (No. 116 nationally), allowing 296.6 yards per game – including more than 300 yards in each of their past three games against Nevada, California and Oregon. The Wildcats have improved against the run, compared to 2013, however – chopping more than a half-yard off of their yards-per-rush defense (3.5). And the pass rush is better – Arizona has 14 sacks through five games compared to 24 total in 2013. Still, the Cats rank eighth in the conference in both total and scoring defense, though they had – arguably – their best performance in their biggest game a week ago.

A key performer in Casteel’s intriguing 3-3-5 defensive alignment is usually found at nose guard, but thus far junior Jeff Worthy (six tackles) and redshirt freshman Parker Zellers (nine stops) have split time. The coaches are looking for more from the position and Zellers has the most upside. The leaders in the group are senior end Reggie Gilbert (two sacks among 12 tackles) and senior tackle Dan Pettinato (17 tackles), who had a crucial sack and forced fumble at Oregon.

In the Cats’ defense, the strong side backer often becomes a defensive end in passing situations, while the “Spur” spot in the secondary is more of a hybrid linebacker/safety position. On the strong side, sophomores Cody Ippolito (18 tackles) and Derrick Turituri (three sacks among 12 stops) are splitting time, with Turituri more of a force when he moves into that rush end mode. Sophomore middle linebacker Scooby Wright III is gaining notice as one of the conference’s best playmakers. He leads Arizona with 58 tackles, eight tackles for loss and five sacks, including an instantly legendary sack-strip of Mariota that ended the Ducks’ final threat a week ago. On the weak side, sophomore Jake Matthews (16 stops) started the first three, but former “Spur” starter Tra’Mayne Bondurant – who nearly left the program during fall camp and stayed in the dog house for some time – has started there against both Cal and Oregon. He’s a playmaker when his head is in the game.

Junior William Parks has played solidly since earning the starting “Spur” role, with 29 tackles and one of Arizona’s three interceptions. The leader of the secondary, though, is senior strong safety Jared Tevis. He’s second on the team with 45 tackles and also has a pick. Senior free safety Jourdon Grandon is a returning starter and has 27 stops, while senior corner Jonathan McKnight has seen his workload drop as opponents target the other starter, redshirt freshman Jarvis McCall Jr.

Arizona Special Teams

Junior Casey Skowron handles all of the placekicking duties. He’s been outstanding on field goals (11-of-13) and perfect on PATs (making all 22). He’s also nailed 23 touchbacks in 37 kickoffs. Junior punter Drew Riggleman is averaging 46.1 yards on 17 boots, with seven of 50 yards or more – but when opponents do return his kicks, they’re averaging almost 10 yards per try. Sophomore receiver DaVonte’ Neal is the Wildcats’ preferred punt returner but he’s struggled with an ankle injury, so fellow receivers Grant and Phillips see time. On kickoff returns, freshman receiver Tyrell Johnson is seeing most of the playing time, and averages 20.1 yards per return.

USC Offensive Gameplan

The Trojans gained 493 yards – 220 rushing – against Arizona State. They played at the pace Sarkisian wants: 95 plays, controlling the ball for more than 37 minutes. They continued to excel on third down, converting 11-of-23 opportunities. So how did the offense put up only 27 points (taking away Nelson Agholor’s 53-yard punt return TD)? More penalties, more dropped passes and more curious decisions in scoring position. Honestly, the Sun Devils should not have been within striking distance of USC when they set up for the game’s final play.

This team is putting up almost 460 yards of offense a week, is capable on third downs, has turned the ball over only twice in five games and is fourth nationally in completion percentage. Yet, it’s only scoring 33 points per game, ranking ninth in the high-scoring Pac-12. What’s amiss? Attention to detail, from the top down – coaches to players.

What does this mean against Arizona on Saturday night? Unless the Trojans’ spirit was completely crushed by the ASU embarrassment, USC should be able to move the ball as readily as they have most of the season. Look for plenty of opportunities downfield for the Trojan receiving corps. Cody Kessler has an chance to have a big night against the Wildcat secondary as it seems likely that the Trojans will open it up against an Arizona defense that has struggled mightily against opposing passers. However, after notching just six sacks in their first three games, Arizona has posted eight in their past two, meaning the USC offensive line will need to perform solidly.

USC Defensive Gameplan

For three-and-a-half quarters, the USC defense held the high-scoring Sun Devils to 18 points and less than 40 yards rushing. Then, in the final 3:53, Bercovici threw three TD passes – each more embarrassing than the previous – to twice lift the Devils out of what looked to be an insurmountable nine-point hole. What happened? A lack of attention to detail, from the top down – coaches to players (yes, I did just copy and paste that from above).

Can the Trojan defense bounce back from the embarrassment of those two completely defendable long TD plays in the final couple minutes? Yes, physically they have the skills and talent to do so. Otherwise, the group wouldn’t be among the best in the nation on third downs and in the red zone – not to mention in turnover margin. Look at the output against Fresno State, Stanford and Oregon State (and even in the first three quarters against the Devils).

But is the scheme there – and ready – against an opponent as well balanced and explosive as Arizona? We know the Trojans can be gashed on the ground by an effective zone-read game (see Boston College). We also know that USC can give up huge chunks in the air (see ASU). Arizona is capable of damaging USC in both ways. For the Trojans to have a chance, they once again need to shut down the league’s top rushing attack (last week, the Sun Devils entered the game leading the conference in rushing before posting just 31 yards on the ground; this week, Arizona comes in atop the conference in that category). If the Trojans can’t slow the Wildcat running attack, that’ll make things much easier for Solomon in the passing game. Though Solomon has been outstanding, he’s still a freshman starter and is prone to making a mistake or two if USC can put the onus on him to make big plays.

The Pick

Honestly, who knows what to expect from this USC team on Saturday night? All signs point to a major ambush by the Wildcats, who will be flying high after their big win in Eugene and always get up for USC. Meanwhile, the Trojans must still be in a bit of shock after last week’s defeat. It will be interesting to see how things start – Arizona has not been too hot in the first half so far in 2014, while the Trojans are outscoring opponents 52-7 in the first quarter. Will last week’s results have a lingering effect and flip that script for each squad?

This series has been incredibly close of late, with each of the past seven games being decided by a touchdown or less. There are a couple reasons USC is a minor favorite in Vegas leading up to this one – the Trojans have a lot of offensive firepower that can overwhelm the Arizona defense if things break right and, until last week’s stunner at Oregon, the Wildcats have not played all that consistently in 2014. Was that upset of the Ducks an outlier or a case of a team finding its identity? I’m not certain that question will be answered in full for Arizona fans come Saturday night, but I do know that it’s awful hard to see USC rectifying all of the detail issues they’ve had in a hostile environment. While the Trojans could easily get blown out if they are suffering a hangover from last week, I expect this one to be close. Still, I have to go with the Wildcats.

Arizona 35, USC 31

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).

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