Arizona Wildcats preview

The Arizona Wildcats come calling to the Coliseum Saturday. It will be just the second home game for the Trojans this season and should provide a much needed break after two challenging and draining away games.

Is this what the St. Louis Cardinals felt like when they learned they'd face the Padres in the first round of the baseball playoffs? I look at the schedule and it says Arizona. I listen to the press conferences and Pete Carroll mentions the Wildcats. The Trojans play their first home game in three weeks against a defensively determined, potentially pesky, Pac-10 foe. And yet all I can think about is an away game in Indiana. Because Pete Carroll was offered the head coaching position instead of me, I'm assuming he'll have a better game plan heading into this weekend.

Wildcats on Offense

Quarterback – #8 Richard Kovalcheck Coming out of high school three years ago, Richard Kovalchek was rated as one of the top quarterbacks in the country. He has all the physical tools to succeed: height, arm strength and accuracy. But nine games into his tenure as the starting quarterback for the Wildcats, Kovalcheck still displays some mental lapses that make him one of the more inconsistent quarterbacks in the conference. He has managed to throw at least one interception in nine of the ten games in which he's played, and the one pick-free game came against Washington last season, where he completed just 11 passes and did not throw for a touchdown. How did Kovalcheck fare against California last week? Why don't you ask his head coach, Mike Stoops. "Our quarterback play really hurt us for whatever reason. Richard had his worst game. It is hard to do well when your quarterback makes some mistakes that he made in that game. He virtually threw the ball up for grabs three times. That is something we don't coach and we don't expect out of our quarterback." Kovalcheck will need to limit his mistakes against the Trojans. He doesn't scramble all that often and he's not the kind of quarterback that can sit in the pocket and pick apart a defense, so the Wildcats will look to get the ball out of his hand quickly and into the hands of their playmakers. Kovalcheck has yet to register a 300-yard passing game and has completed 60% of his passes in a game just once. Against the Trojans last year, Kovalcheck hit 15 of 32 passes for 165 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and was sacked three times. Even with a depleted secondary, Richard Kovalchek and this Arizona air attack shouldn't pose much of a problem for the Trojans.

Running Back – #11 Mike Bell, #36 Gilbert Harris

Mike Bell is your typical great player stuck on a bad team. As a running back, he can do anything asked of him. When given space to operate in, Bell has the speed to get outside and the vision to run between the tackles. He can receive the ball out of the backfield, pick up the blitz, make the first defender miss or punish a tackler. The problem for Bell is that due to the Wildcats' anemic passing game, rarely is he ever given that space. On the year, Bell has carried the ball 75 times for 324 yards (4.3 yards per carry and 81 yards per game). His lone rushing touchdown came in the Wildcats' lone win, against Northern Arizona. That game also marked his only 100-yard rushing performance this season. Bell has the ability to take a game over, as he did last year against Washington, with 222 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Unfortunately for him, Bell won't be seeing any purple on Saturday and the Trojan defense should do a good job in limiting his effectiveness, as they did last year in holding him under 80 yards and out of the end zone. Gilbert Harris is the Wildcats' goal line threat. Harris leads the team with two rushing touchdowns and with 16 carries, has managed just 39 yards. Don't expect to see him rumbling in the open field, as he is a strictly up the middle runner.

Wide Receiver – #10 Mike Thomas, #84 Mike Jefferson, #1 Syndric Steptoe, #9 Anthony Johnson

Just a true freshman, Mike Thomas has opened the year with a strong effort. He leads the team with 19 receptions for 249 yards. He caught a touchdown in the team's season opening loss to Utah and his 42-yard reception against Northern Arizona stands as the longest play from scrimmage for the Wildcats this season. With his speed, Thomas provides a valuable big-play threat for Arizona. Syndric Steptoe is the team's second leading receiver, hauling in 17 passes for 228 yards. Steptoe is another speed threat and has great open-field ability; the Wildcats will look to put the ball in his hands as much as possible. Mike Jefferson will be back in the receiving mix after missing two of the first four games. He could challenge the Trojan secondary with size and speed and leads the team with a 16-yards-per-catch average. Anthony Johnson will see time at wideout as well. His 13 grabs put him third on the team and his 155 receiving yards are fourth. He caught touchdown passes against Northern Arizona and Purdue and will look like a carbon copy of both Mikes.

Tight End – #17 Brad Wood

Brad Wood has been one of the bright spots for the Wildcat offense this season. Despite not recording a catch against Cal, Wood has 12 catches on the year for 180 yards and a team high four touchdowns. Wood can help move the ball downfield, but he still isn't one of the elite tight end talents in the Pac-10.

Offensive Line – LT #76 Peter Graniello, LG #74 Adam Hawes, C #71 Erick Levitre, RG #66 Kili Lefotu, RT #72 Tanner Bell

The Wildcat offensive line has done a competent job of protecting Richard Kovalcheck, but they can't seem to find a way to open holes for the running game. Through four games, they've allowed just eight sacks, but have paved the way for a measly 85 rushing yards per game. The 2.6 yards per carry and three rushing touchdowns that Wildcat backs have posted on the year don't reflect too favorably on them either. Adam Hawes will be starting just his second career game and Kili Lefotu is the lone senior. The line as a whole doesn't do a good job of establishing a line of scrimmage down the field and the backs are consistently met in the backfield. The Trojan defensive front should be able to push this line around and continue to build their confidence.

Wildcats on Defense

Defensive Line – DE #97 Johathan Turner, DT #96 Yaniv Barnett, DT #56 Paul Philipp, DE #49 Copeland Bryan

Copeland Bryan will be the focus of the Trojan offensive line. Bryan sprained his ankle during the first series of the season and missed every snap in that game and the following two. He came back against Cal, however, and recorded three sacks, four tackles, forced a fumble and batted down a pass. Bryan should be a good litmus test for either of the Trojan tackles. If he can be held in check, the rest of the line shouldn't pose much of a problem. Paul Philipp is the only other starter with a sack. He's also forced a fumble and has two tackles for loss. Yaniv Barnett leads the line with ten tackles, two for loss, and Johnathan Turner has seven tackles and one pass deflection.

Linebackers – #40 John McKinney, #39 Dane Krogstad, #35 Sean Jones

Despite all the talent in the secondary, Dane Krogstad and Sean Jones have been the leaders of the Wildcats' defense this season. Krogstad is second on the team with 31 tackles and two sacks. He leads the team with four tackles for loss and one fumble recovery. Sean Jones is third on the team with 26 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. John McKinney has seven tackles on the season and just sounds like he comes from a great pedigree. While these three linebackers are solid enough, none of them should be able to keep up with the talent that the Trojans will throw at them. USC was able to run all over the Sun Devils in the second half of their game, and these linebackers are an even more welcoming sight. The Wildcat run defense is absolutely porous, giving up 200 yards per game and just under five yards per attempt. They've allowed seven rushing touchdowns and if the Trojans choose to, they could double that number with ease.

Cornerbacks – #5 Antone Cason, #3 Wilrey Fontenot

Cornerback Antone Cason is as shut down as they come at the cornerback position. Through four games, he has 17 tackles, one pass deflection and an interception. He leads the Wildcat pass defense, which is the best in the Pac-10, allowing just 157 yards per game through the air. Cason will provide a good test for the Trojan wide receivers before they face Notre Dame's quality corners. Wilrey Fontenot lines up opposite Cason. Neither has been tested much this year as Fontenot has 14 tackles and two pass deflections. These young corners will look to prove themselves against the potent Trojan passing attack and will try to keep Matt Leinart out of the end zone for the second game in a row.

Safeties – #6 Darrell Brooks, #20 Lamon Means, #24 Marcus Hollingsworth

Darrell Brooks is the emotional leader of the Wildcat defense. It helps that he also leads the team in tackles, with 34. Of course, most of those tackles have come because opposing running backs have been able to get eight yards downfield before contact is initiated. Both Brooks and Lamon Means are solid tacklers and good in coverage, which explains the few yards allowed through the air and the numerous tackles tallied. Marcus Hollingsworth has been a welcome addition to the defensive secondary as well. He has totaled 16 tackles, one sack, one interception and leads the team with three pass breakups. He should see a lot of action on Saturday as the Wildcat secondary looks to slow down the Trojan attack.

Wildcat Special Teams

Kicker – #12 Nick Folk

Kicker Nick Folk is turning into a weapon for the Wildcats' special teams. On the season, he has hit three of five field goals, including a 51 yarder against Purdue. He continues to show that strong leg on kickoffs as well, forcing touchbacks on 13 of his 18 kicks. Arizona State was able to keep Reggie Bush and the Trojan special teams quiet last week by kicking the ball out of the endzone on nearly every kickoff. Look for the same thing to happen this weekend.

Punter – #43 Danny Baugher

What the Wildcats lack in offensive firepower, they sure do make up for in the kicking game. In addition to Nick Folk's strong leg, Danny Baugher is one of the best punters in the nation. He gets a lot of work playing for Arizona, but nonetheless, he's been absolutely amazing this year. His 49.1 yards-per-punt is the best in the nation and against Purdue, Baugher blasted kicks of 51, 61, 63, 68 and a career-best 76 yards. Against Reggie Bush however, Baugher presents the distinct possibility of outkicking his coverage and allowing some long returns.

Kick Returner – #1 Syndric Steptoe

The most electric player in a Wildcat uniform gets his hands on the ball as often as possible. He ranks sixth in the Pac-10 in punt returns, averaging just under eight yards per return, and tenth in the conference in kick returns, with a 20 yard average. His longest punt return went 34 yards and his longest kickoff return was good for 40. The Trojans have had some glaring weaknesses in both kickoff and punt coverage this year and they'll need to begin to rectify those against Arizona.

Truthfully, the Trojans should never be tested in the game against the Wildcats. While they could present a slight challenge to the Trojans' passing attack, USC should be able to move the ball at will. The most important aspect of this game is going to be the fundamentals for the Trojans. If the silly penalties and occasionally stagnant offense continues throughout this game, while it most likely won't affect the outcome of this game, it could hurt them in future games.

As much as this game seems like a glorified scrimmage for the Trojans, an impressive showing will not only excite the home fans and stop the panic attacks, it will remind the Trojans of the team they were for the first two games of the season. This is not a team that comes from behind late in games. Yes, they have that ability, but no, they shouldn't be continually forced to. Coming out of the tunnel strong will hopefully remind the Trojans that it's fun to play with a lead, and will remind Trojan fans that they can exhale before the fourth quarter.


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