The USC Trojans (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) host the Arizona Wildcats (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) on Saturday, November 7, at 7:30 p.m. PST in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. USC’s Homecoming game is the 39th meeting in the series, with the Trojans holding a 30-8 edge – including wins in 11 of the past 13 contests. A season ago, USC held off then-No. 10 Arizona, 28-26, in Tucson as Wildcat kicker Casey Skowron missed a 36-yard field goal with 12 seconds to play. In the previous Los Angeles meeting, the Trojans defeated the Wildcats, 38-31.
Last Saturday, USC rushed for 185 yards, including key third-down runs by Tre Madden and Justin Davis that helped run out the clock in a 27-21 victory at California. Adoree’ Jackson’s first career interception, a 46-yard pick-six , also boosted the Trojans in their 12th consecutive win over the Bears. Meanwhile, the Wildcats lost their second consecutive game – a 49-3 whipping by Washington in Seattle. The loss was the first time Arizona failed to score a touchdown in 44 games and even more troubling was the 468 total yards (201 rushing) the Cats allowed to a previously anemic UW offense.
USC interim head coach Clay Helton (3-1 at USC, including a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State) has fared well under the circumstances since replacing the fired Steve Sarkisian on Oct. 9. Arizona headman Rich Rodriguez (31-18 with the Wildcats, 151-102-2 in 22 seasons as a college head coach) is in fourth season in Tucson. After a surprising run to the Pac-12 championship game in 2014, many believed the Wildcats again would challenge for the South Division crown, but a 56-30 thumping by UCLA in Tucson in late September threw Arizona off track – and the Cats are still struggling to regain their balance.Arizona Offense
Co-offensive coordinators Calvin Magee and Rod Smith continue to double down on the Wildcats’ fast-paced offense. Arizona’s rushing attack has been a statistical beast – ranking second in the Pac-12 and 11th nationally overall (265.0 yards per game); No. 2 nationally in rushes of 30-plus yards with 15; No. 4 nationally with 6.05 yards per carry; and No. 7 nationally with 25 rushing TDs. But those numbers mask curious struggles in the Wildcats’ most important games. Arizona is second in the Pac-12 in total offense (512.2 yards per game) and scoring offense (37.4 points per game), but since the beginning of conference play, the lows – Stanford and Washington – have been much lower than any highs. Sophomore quarterback Anu Solomon has struggled to regain consistency since leaving the UCLA game after a shot to the head and is now sharing time with senior Jerrard Randall. Solomon still sees the bulk of the snaps, but Randall’s running (685 yards, 9.9 yards per carry, five TDs) has made him an indispensible weapon. Solomon is completing 61.8 percent of his passes and has 13 TD tosses. He’d gone 232 passes without an interception – until throwing a pair against the Huskies last weekend.
Randall is one of three Wildcats with more than 500 rushing yards in 2015, as sophomore Nick Wilson (691 yards, 5.7 yards per carry, eight TDs) and senior Jared Baker (559 yards, 6.2 yards per, six TDs) have been outstanding. However, Wilson – the returning starter – missed most of the past three games with a lingering foot injury and is expected to sit out on Saturday, as well. But the shifty Baker has stepped right into the void – especially in a 207-yard performance against Colorado on Oct. 17.
Five Arizona receivers have at least 20 receptions, led by junior Cayleb Jones. After establishing himself as Solomon’s favorite target a year ago, the 6’3” Jones continues to impress in 2015, with 40 catches at 13.4 yards per, including two TDs. A trio of slot receivers – senior Johnny Jackson (34 grabs, 12.6, five TDs) and juniors Nate Phillips (30 catches, 12.6, two TDs) and Samajie Grant (25 catches, 8.1, one score) – has been solid. Senior David Richards is another sizeable target at 6’4”, and is a favorite around the goal line with four TDs among his 29 catches.
Only senior Cayman Bundage (who shifted from left guard in 2014 to center this season) and sophomore right guard Jacob Alsadek were considered returning starters on Arizona’s offensive line. Senior Lene Maiava, who saw time at right guard in 2014, has started all nine at right tackle so far in 2015. On the left side, junior Freddie Tagaloa locked down the left guard spot after shifting inside from left tackle for the Oregon State game, but he and Aldasek suffered injuries at Washington – and Arizona reported Thursday morning that both are expected to miss Saturday’s contest. Junior Zach Hemmila, who started the first five at LG, could return to that spot, with senior Kaige Lawrence and junior T.D. Gross as other options. Sophomore Layth Friekh has taken over the left tackle spot.Arizona Defense
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel’s group has been hammered by injuries – 25 different Wildcat defenders have started at least one game so far this season. Linebackers Scooby Wright III and Derrick Turituri, especially, have been missed. Wright did everything for the Cats a season ago but has appeared in just two games (the most recent vs. UCLA on Sept. 26), leaving both with different injuries. Turituri also has missed the past five. The Cats rank 11th in the Pac-12 in pass defense (280.1 yards per game, No. 116 nationally), total defense (453.4 yards per game, No. 110 nationally), and scoring defense (34.2 points per game, No. 102 nationally). Arizona’s best general defensive ranking – No. 7 Pac-12, No. 77 nationally – is against the run, where they’re being gashed for more than 173 yards per game. The Wildcats struggle to get off the field on third down (opponents convert 45 percent) and in the red zone (opponents have scored 31 touchdowns and seven field goals in 39 red zone trips).
Up front in Arizona’s nominal 3-3-5 look, senior end Reggie Gilbert is the group’s leader. He has 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss among 21 stops. Gilbert’s backup, sophomore Jack Banda, has made the most of limited time, notching a team-leading three sacks. Junior Sani Fuimaono (15 tackles, 2.5 for loss, one sack) sees most of the action at nose guard. Sophomore Luca Bruno leads the front three with 22 stops from his defensive tackle spot, though senior Jeff Worthy (2.5 sacks among 13 tackles) will also see time.
With Turituri and Wright down, there’s been a lot of mixing and matching at linebacker. Sophomore DeAndre Miller (31 tackles, three for loss, including a sack) has split four starts at Turituri’s strong side spot and on the weak side. Junior Paul Magloire Jr. (41 tackles, three for loss) has made at least one start at each of the three linebacker spots during the past four weeks. Junior Jake Matthews (36 stops, 1.5 sacks) has seen his time dwindle recently after starting six of the first seven on the weak side or in the middle. Senior Sir Thomas Jackson (28 tackles) and sophomore RJ Morgan (10 stops) are also in the mix.
Senior Will Parks has started eight of nine at the “Spur” (a hybrid linebacker/safety), and leads the team with 51 tackles (3.5 for loss). Junior Tellas Jones starts at strong safety and has 34 tackles (4.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks), while senior Jamar Allah (45 tackles, one of six Cats with a single interception) is the free safety. Five players have at least one start at cornerback, with converted receiver DaVonte’ Neal leading the group with 43 tackles. True freshman Jace Whittaker (23 tackles) seems to have taken hold of the other starting spot in recent weeks, those moving through this revolving door also include sophomores Cam Denson (31 stops, a sack, and an INT) and Kwesi Mashack, freshman Sammy Morrison, and senior Jarvis McCall Jr.Arizona Special Teams
Skowron, a senior who missed three FGs in last season’s loss to USC, handles all of the placekicking duties. He’s made eight-of-11 field goals and 42-of-44 PATs. He has 25 touchbacks in 59 kickoffs. Senior punter Drew Riggleman is averaging 44.5 yards on 34 boots, with seven of 50 yards or more – and opponents average just 3.4 yards per return. Phillips is averaging 27.3 yards on three punt returns, including a 69-yard TD against Washington State. He’s averaging 19.5 yards on eight kickoff returns, while sophomore Tyrell Johnson is averaging 22.2 on four tries.USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojan offense has taken on a different personality under Helton, the head coach, than it had under Helton, the offensive coordinator. USC has won the time of possession battle three times in 2015: in each of the past three games. At Cal, the Trojans had 45 designed runs out of 73 overall plays (quarterback Cody Kessler was sacked twice and scrambled three times, making the run/pass ratio 50:23, officially). While that lightened Kessler’s passing yardage total to 186, USC’s consistent use of the ground game helped him become incredibly efficient, completing 18-of-22 passes and averaging 8.5 yards per attempt.
An early injury to JuJu Smith-Schuster (whose fractured hand may hold him out of Saturday’s contest) also played a role in the Trojans’ desire to establish Madden, Davis, and Ronald Jones, whose 13-yard TD got USC on the board in the second quarter. Many wondered during the game why Jones wasn’t being used more often, but he was limited due to a sore knee. Currently, Madden seems to be the coaching staff’s clear choice in short yardage. With Smith-Schuster limited in the first half and absent for much of the second, young targets Jalen Greene and Deontay Burnett made key plays (including Greene’s 34-yard trick play toss to Burnett that ignited USC’s first TD drive), while Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell overcame recent injuries to make limited but crucial contributions.
Though the pass has destroyed the Wildcats all season, don’t expect to USC to give up on its new personality under Helton. Three of Arizona’s four losses share a common thread: the Wildcats were gashed on the ground by UCLA (213 yards, 4.5 per carry, six rushing TDs), Stanford (314 yards, 6.8 per carry, four rushing TDs), and Washington (201 yards, 5.6 per carry, three rushing TDs). In the Trojans’ victories over Arizona the past two seasons, USC rushed for 239 yards (2014) and 249 yards (2013). Expect the Trojans to look to grind out something similar on Saturday – and, if successful, then try to capitalize with a few big plays through the air.USC Defensive Gameplan
USC’s defense forced three more turnovers – including Jackson’s big interception return for a score – and held the Cal offense well below its season averages in both total plays (61) and yards (389). Justin Wilcox’s defense has taken its share of heat the past two years, but it’s also bottled up Cal’s vaunted passing offense in each season. As predicted, Cal looked to run the football early – and did well until the Trojans adjusted to shut it down. Bear backers might say that Cal tried to stick with the run a little bit too much, but USC’s secondary tackled solidly, limiting the big play, and the Trojans also held the Bears to just two-for-nine on third down.
But, after facing what was expected to be pass-first, pass-always California, Helton made the astute observation earlier this week that Arizona’s spread attack is a run-first operation. The Cats’ offensive statistics above bear him out, and the fact that Solomon has not performed as effectively as he did in 2014 has made things even more lopsided. Outside of a 353-yard rushing performance against the banged-up UCLA defense, what was the Wildcats’ offensive storyline their other three defeats? The answer: three of Arizona’s four worst rushing totals of the season – 118 yards vs. Stanford, 176 vs. Washington State, and 127 vs. Washington.
USC’s goal Saturday, obviously, will be to limit the Wildcats’ ground attack. But within that, the concept must be two-fold: keep Arizona out of third-and-short, and deny the big play. The Wildcats convert 47 percent of their third-down opportunities, tops in the Pac-12 and No. 14 nationally – and they do it by consistently putting themselves in third-and-four or less. USC must make plays on early downs and force Arizona to throw downfield on third, where Solomon’s been less than accurate. At the same time, the Trojans cannot afford to let Randall or the Arizona running backs to break free, as they’ve done time and again in 2015. Randall’s been an especially proficient game-breaker, and the Trojans would be well advised to treat him as running threat No. 1 when he enters.The Pick
Before the season, this looked like it could be one of the conference’s games of the year – the Pac-12 preseason favorite against the defending South Division champion. But with USC’s season nearly falling to pieces after the Sarkisian firing and Arizona’s continued defensive issues, the game, instead, features a pair of teams looking to snag that sixth win to guarantee bowl eligibility.
Certainly, just a few weeks ago, you’d have been hard pressed to see USC as the team with bigger hopes and dreams remaining by the time this game rolled around. But, on the field, Arizona’s October went even more sideways than USC’s, leaving the Wildcats with the daunting task of finding one win among remaining games against USC, Utah, and Arizona State to become bowl eligible. Meanwhile, it’s USC that, if it keeps winning, is only one Utah loss away from controlling its own destiny in the South Division.
The Trojans have the momentum, the home field advantage, and what’s likely to be the overwhelming support of a partisan Homecoming crowd. They also appear to have found an identity that suits them – and, unfortunately for Arizona, it's the sort of identity that’s given RichRod’s Wildcats fits. Though it’s wholly possible that Arizona could dial up a big offensive game and make this a shootout, look for the Trojans to continue their ball-controlling ways on offense and ball-hawking ways on defense to pull away in the second half.
USC 38, Arizona 21
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)