The Trojans visit Arizona for a rare day game in the desert. Can USC get its first road win of 2016?
The USC Trojans (3-3, 2-2 in the Pac-12) make their lone road trip of October to face the Arizona Wildcats (2-4, 0-3) on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 12:30 p.m. PDT in Tucson’s Arizona Stadium and in front of a national FOX network television audience. The Trojans are looking to extend their two game winning streak and are a 9.5 favorite over the Wildcats. It’s the 40th meeting, with USC leading the series 31-8. The Trojans have won the past three contests (and 12 of 14) against the Wildcats, including a 38-30 decision at the Coliseum last season and a 28-26 victory over then-No. 10 Arizona in the previous Tucson meeting (2014).
Last week, USC’s 539 yards of total offense, one spectacular catch by Darreus Rogers, and another amazing all-around performance by Adoree Jackson were enough to overcome four turnovers in a 21-17 victory over then-No. 21 Colorado at the Coliseum. Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns but lost two fumbles and threw an interception. The Trojan defense had four sacks and held the Buffaloes to 160 yards and 26 points below their season averages. Meanwhile, the Wildcats saw an early 14-3 lead slip away in a 36-23 defeat at then-No. 24 Utah.
USC remained undefeated in the Coliseum (6-0) under Coach Clay Helton (9-7 overall in parts of three seasons). However, the Trojans have lost their past six games away from Los Angeles (three true road games and three neutral-site matchups). Arizona headman Rich Rodriguez (35-24 with the Wildcats, 155-108-2 in 23 seasons as a college head coach) is in fifth season in Tucson. After winning the Pac-12 South in 2014, the Wildcats have been on a roller coaster, finishing 7-6 a season ago. After winning two of its first three in 2016 and then falling just short in overtime against Pac-12 leader Washington, Arizona’s losses at UCLA and Utah leave its bowl hopes in a precarious position.
Co-offensive coordinators Calvin Magee and Rod Smith have dealt with backfield injuries that would bring most offenses to a grinding halt. However, the Wildcats – statistically, at least – have remained decent. Arizona’s rushing attack remains among the Pac-12’s best (third in the conference, No. 29 nationally) averaging nearly 227 yards per game, helping the Cats rank sixth in the conference in total offense (448.7 yards per game). Arizona is also tied for fifth nationally with 12 plays of 40 yards or more. The problems: Arizona’s passing attack has faded (221.8 yards per game, ranking 10th in the league), and the Wildcats have struggled in time of possession (just 26:26 per game), partly due to bouts of ineffectiveness on third down (35.8 percent). Junior quarterback Anu Solomon, Arizona’s starter for much of the past two years, hasn’t appeared since the opener due to a knee injury, and sophomore backup Brandon Dawkins has missed time in each of the past two games due to rib and concussion concerns. Dawkins has been effective when he’s played – completing 58.5 percent of his passes for 941 yards with five TDs and three interceptions, while leading Arizona in rushing with 484 yards (7.7 per carry) and eight touchdowns. With Dawkins in doubt for Saturday, true freshman Khalil Tate – another athletic pass/run threat – could be in line for his first start after appearing in the past two games.
Junior Nick Wilson, expected to be U of A’s bellwether running back, has missed all or part of the past four games with a nagging ankle injury – yet is still the Cats’ top back with 273 rushing yards and three scores. He’s listed as probable this week – big news for Arizona, because with expected backup Orlando Bradford dismissed from the team after week two, the load initially fell on undersized freshman J.J. Taylor. He averaged 7.2 yards on 37 carries against Hawaii and Washington before breaking his ankle. He’s out indefinitely. If Wilson struggles to find his footing Saturday, converted receiver Tyrell Johnson and big back Zach Green, both juniors, will try to fill the void – the duo combined for 45 yards on 13 carries at Utah last week.
A trio of solid seniors was expected to lead the way among Arizona’s receiving corps in 2016. And Nate Phillips (16 catches, 8.9 yards per out of one slot position), Samajie Grant (16 catches, 14.2, two TDs), and big play specialist Trey Griffey (16 catches, 19.1, one TD) – son of baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. – have performed as well as can be expected. The surprise has been sophomore Shun Brown at the other slot position. Brown has caught 19 passes for 345 yards and three TDs in the past four games. He’s also had catches of 56, 54, 31, and 75 yards in those outings.
Arizona tragically lost senior lineman Zach Hemmila during fall camp to a toxic combination of prescription medication – a crushing emotional blow. As you might imagine, the offensive line struggled early – but has come on of late. They’ve allowed just 10 sacks in six games. Junior right guard Jacob Alsadek is a three-year starter and classmate Layth Friekh has put a stranglehold on the left tackle spot. That meant senior Freddie Tagaloa moved inside to left guard, where he’s split time with sophomore Christian Boettcher. Junior Gerhard de Beer – who’s also one of the nation’s top shot-putters – has started five of six at right tackle, ahead of redshirt freshman Cody Creason. And speaking of redshirt freshmen, the Wildcats hope Nathan Eldridge is the answer at center through 2019.
Rodriguez fired his entire defensive staff after an alarming performance in 2015. Former Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates heads a brand new – and energetic – group of coaches. Talk of a shift to a 4-3 base hasn’t happened, as Arizona mostly operates out of a 3-4 or 3-3-5 look with the “spur” position operating as a hybrid linebacker/safety. Injuries and youth have hampered the Cats’ development, and inconsistency has been the biggest issue. The Cats rank ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (188 yards per game, No. 89 nationally), passing defense (270 yards per game, No. 102 nationally), and total defense (458 yards per game, No. 108 nationally). Arizona’s best general defensive ranking – No. 8 Pac-12, No. 87 nationally – is in scoring defense (30.5 points per game). The Wildcats struggle to get off the field on third down (opponents convert 47.6 percent) and have just 13 sacks in six games. And while Arizona has forced nine turnovers, only one of those came in its four defeats.
Up front, redshirt freshman end Justin Belknap – a walk-on – is the only member of the group to start all six. Though he’s undersized, he’s a battler (10 tackles, 2.5 for loss). Junior Jack Banda (eight tackles, two sacks) backs him up. Junior nose guard Parker Zellers has missed the past three with a knee injury, which pushed senior Aiulua Fanene (six stops, one for loss) into the starting group for the first time in his career. Senior Sani Fuimaono (eight tackles) starts at defensive tackle, but can swing to the nose. Juniors Luca Bruno and Calvin Allen, sophomore Larry Tharpe Jr., and redshirt freshman Finton Connolly have also seen action.
Senior starting “Mike” linebacker Cody Ippolito (28 tackles, four for loss, two fumble recoveries) was lost for the season last week with a knee injury. Junior “Stud” linebacker – Arizona’s rush linebacker spot – DeAndre Miller has a team-leading three sacks and five tackles for loss, but missed losses to Washington and UCLA due to an ankle injury. He’s ready to go this week, while senior Michael Barton – a graduate transfer from Cal – will slide over from the “Will” spot to replace Ippolito. Barton leads the Wildcats with 38 stops (4.5 for loss). Senior Paul Magloire Jr. (29 tackles, 3.5 for loss) had been sharing time with Barton and takes over the “Will” spot. Senior Jake Matthews (12 tackles, fumble recovery) and junior John Kenny (17 stops) provide depth.
Two members of the Wildcat secondary have made great strides in 2016: sophomore Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (32 tackles, two for loss, and two interceptions) at the “bandit” or strong safety position; and classmate Jace Whittaker (15 tackles, one INT, eight pass breakups), a cornerback who appears to have overtaken senior DaVonte’ Neal (18 tackles, four PBUs) on the depth chart. Junior Dane Cruikshank (22 stops, one INT, five PBUs) is the other starting corner. Senior Tellas Jones (13 tackles, fumble recovery) has been hampered by injuries, missing three games to throw the Wildcats’ “spur” position into flux. Both true freshman Tristan Cooper (18 tackles) and redshirt freshman Anthony Mariscal (11 stops) have seen time. Junior free safety Jarvis McCall Jr. (18 tackles, one INT) returns to the starting lineup as freshman Isaiah Hayes, who had started the past two, is out with a concussion.
Arizona Special Teams
Sophomore Jake Pollock earned the unenviable duty of replacing both placekicker Jake Skowron and punter Drew Riggleman. He’s been solid in the kicking aspect (19-of-19 PATs, six-of-eight field goals with the two misses from beyond 50 yards). As a punter, he’s averaging 43.1 yards but kicks a very returnable ball, which has allowed opponents to average nearly 10 yards per chance. Classmate Edgar Gastelum handles kickoffs, but has just 12 touchbacks in 30 tries. Phillips is averaging just 3.5 yards on four punt returns. Brown and junior defensive back Kwesi Mashack have taken over kick return duties from running back/receiver Johnson.
USC Offensive Gameplan
Though Darnold had another impressive performance – take a look at the clip of his second-quarter TD pass to tight end Tyler Petite – this one came with a helping of freshman mistakes or, perhaps, “playmaker mistakes.” His three turnovers (two fumbles and an interception; a Justin Davis fumble accounted for USC’s fourth turnover) nearly became four before Rogers ripped the ball out of Colorado cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon’s hands on USC’s game-winning scoring drive. Those mistakes were responsible for turning 539 yards into just 21 points. While most agree that these miscues are part of watching a young gunslinger learn on the job, they’re something Darnold must clean up – especially against Arizona, which has struggled to force turnovers of late.
Losing Davis to a high ankle sprain presents a challenge. The senior tailback’s recent performance has been a major reason that USC’s offense has turned things around. The easy answer would be to get sophomore Ronald Jones II on track. He looked solid against CU after Davis went down, but for the Trojans to continue to roll up big numbers, Jones must find a way to revert – consistently – to his freshman form. He’s got the talent, he seems to have improved his blocking and pass catching, and now – perhaps with the bulk of the carries giving him some rhythm – he must shine.
Against the Wildcats, the Trojans’ offensive front must be ready to dominate. Arizona’s defensive front is undersized, and the Wildcats tend to blitz a lot. USC should – and must – get a push in the run game and then pick up those blitzers. If they do, the Trojans should be able to find plenty of room to maneuver. Another thing to keep an eye on: a slow start. As noted, USC hasn’t won away from the Coliseum in nearly a year. At the same time, Arizona’s defense played extremely well in the first half in each of its past two games before falling apart. Can the Trojans come out firing and put the Wildcats in a hole?
USC Defensive Gameplan
For the second game in a row, the USC defense held a previously high-powered offense in check. Colorado had been averaging 313 passing yards and 219 rushing yards before the Trojans held them to 275 passing (67 on a trick-play double pass for the Buffs’ first score) and 96 rushing. USC also continued to get solid pressure on the quarterback, sacking CU passers four times (seven of USC’s 12 total sacks on the season have come in the past two games). And – once again – the Trojans were able to stay fresh, mainly by getting the Buffs off the field on third down (CU was just 6-of-17) to keep Colorado under 28 minutes of possession time – five minutes fewer than its average.
These results have come from a much more aggressive plan from Clancy Pendergast – one that’s been executed extremely well by his players. There’s no reason to think the Trojans will change much this weekend, though some slight tweaks may be in order for whichever of Arizona’s run-first quarterbacks lines up. Outside of the deep ability of Griffey, the Wildcats are mainly a horizontal offense, looking to find holes and blown assignments from side-to-side. Wilson’s skillset gives the Wildcats a big boost over the limited talent and experience behind him. If he struggles, things will be that much tougher for Tate or Dawkins.
Expect USC to focus on slowing the quarterback’s success running the ball. If USC can scuttle Tate’s or Dawkins’ effectiveness as a ball carrier and keep the Wildcats in third-and-long situations, they will have Arizona where they want them – needing to pass for success. And though Arizona has a solid receiving corps, you’d much rather have the Cats’ quarterbacks needing to get them the ball consistently rather than taking it themselves.
Can USC finally win a road game? This Arizona team is wounded – both physically and mentally. Yes, I understand that a wounded animal often can be the most dangerous, but the Wildcats’ current issues should (should) play right into the hands of a USC team that seems to have found itself in recent weeks.
Remember: the past nine meetings between these schools have been decided by eight points or fewer. The last time the Trojans really controlled a game against Arizona was in 2006, when USC won 20-3 in Tucson. Another item to consider, given USC’s propensity for mistakes on the road: Arizona’s opponents have been the most penalized in the nation in 2016 (59 penalties in six games).
There’s no doubt the Wildcats and their fans will create a hostile environment. However, the keys for USC are simple – if they can execute them: dominate the Wildcats’ defensive front and find the playmakers on offense, while avoiding the killer turnovers suffered against Utah and Colorado; stop Arizona’s quarterback rushing game, forcing the Cats to pass, where the USC defense could create takeaways of its own; and take advantage of Arizona’s shaky kicking teams with Jackson’s talents.
USC 37, Arizona 24
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)