Pac-12 hopes depend on homecoming game

Junior linebacker Cam Smith on Saturday celebrates after the Trojans sack the Arizona State quarterback. Photo by Tucker Judkins | Daily Trojan

When USC faced Arizona last year, the Wildcats were 2-4 and without their starting quarterback, Brandon Dawkins, due to injury. In his absence, they played a 17-year-old true freshman named Khalil Tate. He finished his first career start with 58 yards passing on a 39 percent completion percentage, and two turnovers as the Trojans won convincingly, 48-14.

When No. 17 USC goes head to head with No. 22 Arizona in this season’s homecoming game at the Coliseum, the Wildcats will once again start Tate instead of Dawkins, but this time the Trojans will be anticipating a much more prolific outing from the Los Angeles native. Since taking over as the team’s starting quarterback against Colorado a month ago, Tate has taken the college football world by storm, rushing for 840 yards and completing 68.7 percent of his passes. But more importantly, he’s led the Wildcats to four straight wins and a shared spot atop the Pac-12 South with none other than USC.

“We played Khalil last year, and just being a quarterback coach by trade, the progress that I have seen has been in his deep ball accuracy,” head coach Clay Helton said. “That’s what’s making him so hard right now to defend in this offense.”

In what Helton referred to earlier in the week as a “Pac-12 playoff game,” the Trojans will be forced to defend Tate with a battered defensive unit. Sophomore defensive lineman Christian Rector is out with a broken hand, and junior outside linebacker Porter Gustin is sidelined once again with a toe injury that has plagued him since Week 2. While junior nose tackle Josh Fatu has cleared concussion protocol (he was involved in a car accident two weeks ago) and is likely to play more snaps than he did last week, junior cornerback Iman Marshall is still questionable with a knee sprain.

Without Gustin and Rector to shore up the edge opposite junior outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will likely have to rely on sophomore Connor Murphy to help contain Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez’s potent read option attack. In addition to Tate, running backs J.J. Taylor (518 yards) and Nick Wilson (353 yards) make up a ground attack responsible for the fifth most rushing yards per game in the country (338.6).

The last time USC faced off against a team ranking in the top ten for rushing yards, Notre Dame rolled the Trojans for 377 yards behind quarterback Brandon Wimbush and running back Josh Adams. They bounced back nicely against Arizona State last week, holding the Sun Devils to 79 yards on the ground, but the team recognizes the heightened challenge it has on its hands as it encounters a hot Arizona team.

“What we’ve stressed to our defense is just not taking the eye candy of chasing the quarterback,” Helton said. “Because what ends up happening to you, [like what you saw against Notre Dame] is a linebacker gets out of a gap … and then the back goes [for a big gain]. This is going to be a really disciplined football game by our defense. They’re going to have to play disciplined … They have tremendous, skilled kids in J.J., Nick and Khalil, who are running a very powerful offense.”

On the offensive side of the ball, redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold is coming off of one of his most efficient performances of the year against Arizona State. He threw for 266 yards and three touchdowns, while avoiding any damaging turnovers for the first time all season. Darnold found redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns for several big gains, and the receiver finished with a career-high 126 yards and two touchdowns.

USC’s big offensive day was not limited to the air, however, as junior running back Ronald Jones II rampaged for a season-high 216 yards. The Trojans are hoping to carry over a balanced, yet explosive offensive attack into this Saturday’s game. Arizona currently ranks second-to-last in Pac-12 total defense, giving up 447.9 total yards per game.

Aiding the offense will be the return of freshman running back Stephen Carr, who has been injured since the Washington State loss in late September. He ran for 309 yards and three touchdowns, surfacing as a potential Pac-12 Freshman of the Year candidate, before going down with the foot injury.

“I don’t know if he’s ready to go out there and get 40- 50 snaps, but he does look like he’s ready to contribute,” Helton said of Carr’s status on Thursday.

As the regular season winds down, this weekend’s game against Arizona will go a long way in shaping the Pac-12 title picture.

“It’s a group that wants to win a championship,” Helton said. “They know what’s at stake. I think they’ve prepared extremely well this week.”