USC survives second half slump to win in Arizona

Redshirt freshman Velus Jones goes airborne to make a catch in Saturday’s game against the Wildcats in Arizona. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

USC held off a late push by Arizona to defeat the Wildcats 24-20 on Saturday in Tucson. The victory extended the Trojans’ record to 3-2 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-12.

The Trojans had a 24-0 lead, but Arizona reeled off 20 consecutive points to draw closer in the fourth quarter. A touchdown with under two minutes drew the Wildcats within 4 points, and USC recovered an onside kick to close out the game.

Freshman quarterback JT Daniels was 16-of-24 passing for 197 yards, while Arizona’s junior quarterback Khalil Tate’s was 16-of-33 passing for 232 yards.

Penalties (once again) plagued the Trojans as the team committed 18 penalties totalling 169 yards.

“There was a lot of yellow on both sides from both teams,” head coach Clay Helton said. “It was one of those nights. The things that I’m going to point out to the team are some of the decision-making things.

USC’s first score came from a solid mixture of receivers to spark the passing game. Daniels completed passes to three different receivers, including tossing a 37-yard pass to sophomore tight end Josh Falo for a total of 80 passing yards on a 12-play, 90-yard drive. The reception was notable as USC does not typically target tight ends offensively.

In the first half, the Trojans were successful on key plays, converting three of five third down attempts while holding the Wildcats to just one of four conversions. On the other hand, USC failed to reconcile its preventable penalty issue from the Washington State game. The Trojans were penalized nine times for 95 yards in the first half alone. One of the fouls, a holding call, negated what would have been a large gain for sophomore running back Stephen Carr.

Solid defensive pressure led to a turnover in favorable field position for USC. Senior linebacker Porter Gustin’s pressure on Tate on a play action forced a throw into the hands of senior safety Marvell Tell III. The Trojans were unsuccessful in breaking into the red zone and settled for a career-long 42-yard field goal by redshirt sophomore Michael Brown to extend the Trojans’ lead to 10-0.

Perhaps the biggest improvement for the team was the diversification of receiving targets. Daniels had five receptions to freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown for 54 yards, two receptions each to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tyler Vaughns for 22 and 23 yards, respectively. This marked a stark contrast to past games in which Daniels focused on one receiver, usually St. Brown, for the bulk of  his targets. The offense also experimented with targeting tight ends, which aided in the offense’s passing success.

“I think [getting comfortable with more receivers] is a big positive for us,” Daniels said. “We’re getting better and better throwing the ball.”

The second half kept the ball rolling for the Trojans. On its first drive of the second half, USC extended its lead to 24-0 when senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware rushed 69 yards into the end zone. He ran for 176 yards on 21 carries for two touchdowns on the night.

“The O-line did their thing,” Ware said. “They opened up holes and I just ran through them.”

The Wildcats’ first score came in the third quarter, and it was Tate’s first showing of the game. He led his team 84 yards in seven plays for a touchdown to narrow the Trojans’ lead to 24-7. The Wildcats’ next scoring drive didn’t come until midway through the fourth quarter. Following a turnover via a fumble by Daniels, Arizona found the end zone on its first play when Tate slung a 32-yard completion to redshirt junior receiver Cedric Peterson.

Arizona’s last drive ended with its third and final touchdown of the night late in the fourth after taking multiple stabs at the end zone from the red zone at the goal line. The Wildcats narrowed the Trojans lead to 24-20, the final score of the match up.

Heading into the bye week, there is a definite need among the team to improve on its recurring flaws.

“Helton came up to me after and said, ‘We really gotta go. These next two weeks are big for us,’” senior linebacker Cam Smith said. “And I said, ‘Hey coach, we’ve gotta have a sense of urgency.’ And that’s what we’ve been communicating a lot about, and we’re all working together. These don’t feel great, but at the end it’s a win and I’m happy we have it.”

Following its week off, USC will welcome Colorado at the Coliseum on Oct. 13.