TUCSON, Ariz. -- This is how it's supposed to go.
In the grand scheme of things and under the best of circumstances, Arizona should be up against it when USC comes to town. Even with a blazing mid-day sun the Wildcats are accustomed to playing under.
What it's hard to play against, and be accustomed to facing, is a USC team with a JuJu Smith-Schuster motivated to make up for a mistake, a Sam Darnold making plays with his arm and his feet while making sure he holds on to the ball, an offensive line executing as a unit at last and a Clancy Pendergast defense going against his alma mater determined to make life difficult for an LA freshman QB from Serra High, Khalil Tate, in his first career start.
You can check all those boxes in USC's 48-14 romp in front of an announced sellout crowd of 55,463 that had most of the sunny side of that stadium completely abandoned for the second half and sparse as heck for the first half. These folks may like their sun but they don't like it that much.
Not that their injured Wildcats (2-5, 0-4 in the Pac-12) gave them much hope going into this one with their top two quarterbacks and running backs mostly running on empty. Which is why the athletic Tate got his chance.
Not that this game was about Arizona. It was about a maturing USC team, now 4-3 (3-2 in the Pac-12 and a half-game out of first place in the South) that replaced its top back, Justin Davis, with another three tailbacks -- and Darnold -- who ran the ball for a season-high 329 yards. Aca'Cedric Ware topped the list with 103 yards on 12 carries -- an 8.6 average. Then Dominic Davis came in for 89 on seven carries, the bulk of that on an 85-yard sprint late in the game.
"I told him he should have scored," running backs coach Tommie Robinson said later as he talked of workhorse Ronald Jones, the starter, getting 77 yards on 16 (a 4.8 average). But the difference, as he converted third and long time and again was Darnold, whose 54 yards, all in the first half on six scrambles mostly in third and long (a 9.0 average), were the catalyst for USC's 34-7 halftime edge.
But if the difference in athletes could have been made any more obvious, it was the third-quarter series right after JuJu was called for a 15-yard penalty for popping up and stepping over a late-arriving tackler who slid right through his body after a catch in traffic. Only in the Pac-12 would this call have been made. But since USC only plays in the Pac-12, Clay Helton figured it was time to talk to JuJu.
"You're a better person than that," JuJu said Clay told him. "And I'll own up to it. I shouldn't have done that," JuJu said. So what does a JuJu Smith-Schuster do to make up for it. "I came out ultra competitive after that," he said. Indeed, after getting the flag that set USC back to its own 27 with less than 2:00 in the first half and the Trojans out of timeouts, JuJu grabbed the ball near the sideline, ran by and over a couple of Wildcats before tiptoeing down the paint 39 yards to make it 34-7.
Turns out, JuJu who finished with nine catches for 132 yards and three TDs, was better than that. His 46-yard grab in coverage in the third quarter was just a case of a better athlete beating someone to the ball. And for USC fans worrying about JuJu's injury later, he took a helmet into his back and "it locked up on me," he said. "I couldn't breathe. It was like I had the wind knocked out of me."
Which is why Zach Banner and Tyler Vaughns picked him up after a couple of minutes face-down on the sideline and deposited him on he bench. After icing up and a negative X-ray, JuJu said he'll be fine in 11 days for Cal. But the bye week is coming at just the right time.
"I love it," Chris Hawkins said. "The next weekend off is going to help a lot. We've got a lot of people beat up."
Although the Trojans who are, except for Steven Mitchell's knee after going out of bounds fielding a short, line-drive rugby punt with no contact, say they'll be fine. That includes Leon McQuay's groin and hip flexor, Damien Mama's hyperextended elbow and Olajuwon Tucker's knee after getting a helmet hit. Mitchell will get an MRI Sunday when we should know more.
Darnold, meanwhile, was 20 of 35 for 235 yards, breaking his two-game streak of 300-yard games. But he did throw for a career-high five TDs, and added those 54 crucial first-half rushing yards. "Coach, there's more out there," Helton said Sam told him.
But Sam was having none of the focus on him. The difference here was "our defense played lights out," he said. Those three takeaways (two interceptions, one fumble recovery with Tate responsible for one of each) "were the big difference."
Maybe no more than USC's no turnovers after four last week. "That was a huge emphasis this week, taking care of the ball," Sam said, so every time he scrambled, even if he didn't always get two hands on the ball, he clutched it tight, he said.
"He's a playmaker," said Viane Talamaivao, who led the USC rushing game from his right guard spot much of the day. "You don't know if he'll be making a play with his feet or with his arm."
As for the O-line's work in leading USC to 329 rushing yards with no sacks, "What felt really good is that we did it as a unit."
"USC definitely capitalized on a lot of the plays and hats off to them," said Arizona senior D-lineman Sani Fuimaono. "They're a great ball club."
And Arizona, after Tate went out, had to go with backup tight end and holder Matt Morin, a 235-pound Murrieta product, who "hasn't played quarterback for five years since high school," said coach Rich Rodriguez of his switch the last week and a half. "I'm not sure where our quarterback situation is."
But USC is sure where it is. And for now, with Sam & Co., that's making all the difference.
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