Football looks to pick up a road win in Arizona

Senior cornerback Iman “Biggie” Marshall recorded six tackles against Stanford on Sept. 8. (Tal Volk | Daily Trojan)

USC rebounded from back-to-back road defeats with a tightly contested win against previously undefeated Washington State. The Trojans came back from a 13-point deficit in the third quarter to beat the Cougars 39-36, in a game that USC desperately needed to win to fix its losing record. The offense had its most impressive performance this season, while the defense struggled more than it did in prior weeks. The 2-2 Trojans go on the road again on Saturday to face an Arizona squad with the same record looking to find its footing under new head coach Kevin Sumlin.

USC offense vs. Arizona defense

Though the USC offense had struggled in the two prior games, the unit figured it out last Friday against the Cougars. It started on the ground, with the Trojans running the ball efficiently and effectively, with the backs gaining 166 rushing yards on the night with two touchdowns. Running backs redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai and sophomore Stephen Carr split that total almost evenly against the WSU front seven.

A major part of that production was a direct result of the offensive line playing what might have been its best game of the season as they cleared large holes for the backs to run through — a far cry from the missed assignments and whiffed blocks from the Texas game. If the Trojans can replicate that effort on Saturday, they could break the game open — the Wildcats’ run defense has given up 197 yards a game so far this season, despite the play of linebacker Colin Schooler, who has recorded 23 solo tackles so far this season.

The Wildcat secondary should offer a tougher challenge to the Trojans, as it has held opponents to an average of 218 passing yards per game. The secondary is led by redshirt sophomore cornerback Lorenzo Burns, who led the Pac-12 in interceptions with five last season, and comes into this matchup with six pass breakups on the year. At 5-foot-10, Burns is at a size disadvantage with the Trojan receivers, but his athleticism and ball skills will make him tough to throw at. Freshman quarterback JT Daniels and the passing offense were rolling last week, as he finished with 241 yards for three touchdowns and no interceptions.

“One of the things that [Daniels] does is he really takes advantage of the throws,” head coach Clay Helton said. “If he sees a one-on-one match up, he’s pulling the trigger … We have the playmakers outside to be able to make those plays and we have a quarterback that’s not scared to pull the trigger on them.”

Receivers freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns and junior Michael Pittman all caught touchdown passes on the day, all three of them simultaneously performing at a high level for the first time so far this season. St. Brown recorded 38 yards on two receptions, Vaughns had 64 yards on seven receptions and Pittman boasted seventy two on two. The pass blocking was  improved last week after disappointing showings the two prior games, a big part of the reason why the Trojans were so successful through the air with three touchdown passes.

Arizona offense vs. USC defense

Although they started the season slowly, the Arizona offense has started to click over the last two games, putting up 1,057 yards over those contests. The Wildcats’ ground game has been deadly, averaging 247 yards on the ground for the season, with a number of explosive playmakers in the backfield in running backs sophomore Gary Brightwell, redshirt junior Anthony Mariscal and redshirt sophomore J.J. Taylor.

Taylor rushed for 284 yards and two touchdowns, winning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week. Though the Trojans were stout against the run last week, giving up only 91 yards on 24 carries, they’ve shown a tendency to pick up big plays on the ground once runners get to the edge. With home-run threats like Taylor in the Wildcat backfield, USC can’t afford to let that happen on Saturday.

However, having to account for one of the nation’s best dual-threat quarterbacks in Khalil Tate will make that task difficult. Tate has had an inefficient season on the ground so far, failing to reach even 20 yards rushing in a game, despite having 1,411 rushing yards last year. USC has struggled to defend rushing quarterbacks, and this year has been no different, as both quarterbacks sophomore Armani Rogers of UNLV and Sam Ehlinger of Texas gave the Trojans fits with their legs.

“Every week, we work the turnover circuit,” Helton said. “Every Thursday I do the turnover DNA of a football team of what guys are loose with the ball, what you should be looking for and targeting with. Also the quarterback play, how he escapes the pocket. What’s his routine about when he gets off spot to be able to know where he’s going to be, all those things you try to help with. Hopefully they come in waves, I’m ready for a wave of turnovers.”

Containing Tate in the pocket will be one of the most important keys to the game for USC. Through the air, he’s been solid if unspectacular, throwing for 1,039 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions on a 54 percent completion percentage. However, the Trojans looked vulnerable to the pass last week, failing to generate much pressure on Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew II for much of the game and allowing him to throw for 344 yards and three touchdowns.

“It’s about defending Khalil Tate and stopping [Taylor] and hopefully holding up outside on those three great wideouts,” Helton said.

Prediction: USC 35, Arizona 24.

USC’s offense looks to finally have found some kind of rhythm, and Arizona’s defense simply doesn’t look like it has the firepower to slow that down in any way. The Trojans should be able to put a lot of points on the board with their vast arsenal of playmakers, especially if the offensive line performs as it did against Washington State.

The Wildcat rushing offense is dynamic and will likely break some big plays on the night, but look for the Trojan pass rush to rebound from their last showing and make life hard for Tate. Expect this game to be relatively close, but for the Trojans to pull away during the second half.