A young Trojans squad finds itself in unfamiliar territory.
Returning home from a disappointing loss on the road against Arizona State, how will USC respond?
Despite what happened in Tempe, Ariz., last Saturday, the coaching staff feels the team is ready to put the past behind it.
“We had a great week of practice,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “They were a focused group. The best way to forget about a loss is put it away. The best way to put it away is to play really well and win.”
USC (3-1, 1-1) will have to play well against an Arizona squad that returns its top two offensive weapons in senior quarterback Nick Foles and senior wide receiver Juron Criner. Though Arizona’s (1-3, 0-2) record might be deceiving, they have already faced three top-10 opponents in then-No. 9 Oklahoma State, then-No. 6 Stanford and No. 10 Oregon.
Foles and Criner lead an Arizona attack that ranks 40th in total offense, which averages almost 435 yards per contest. Foles already ranks No. 3 in Wildcats history with 7,124 passing yards and No. 2 with 49 career-passing touchdowns. Last week in the loss against Oregon, Foles threw for 398 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s like a Peyton Manning type of guy,” sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said. “You can tell how he carries the team and how he organizes the players. He and [Juron] Criner are the key guys to their offense.”
Criner has 21 receptions for 295 yards and two touchdowns this year. He also ranks in the top six in Arizona history in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Slowing down Foles and Criner, however, won’t be easy. Though the USC defense has shown improvement through four games this season, the coaching staff believes it can be much better, especially the secondary.
“At times, [they’ve] played well,” Kiffin said. “We haven’t created enough explosive plays, but at the same time, we have limited explosive plays, so we’ve improved there. We just need to tackle better and make some significant plays on the ball.”
Though backed by a potent offense that ranks in the top-third of the nation, Arizona’s defense is in the bottom-10. The Wildcats rank No. 112 in total defense and No. 106 in scoring defense, allowing teams 484 yards of offense and 35 points per contest. The statistics might present one story, but the coaching staff believes Arizona’s defense is not as bad on paper.
“They have played three of the best offenses in the country,” Kiffin said. “Everybody talks about whether they’re ranked on defense, [but] those [teams they played] are some of the best offenses in the country, so they’re going to be ready to play.”
USC’s offense will take what it can get. The Trojans struggled on third-down conversions at Arizona State finishing 1-of-9 as part of a season-long struggle to score. Arizona’s defense, however, has allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 73 percent of its red-zone drives (16-of-22).
More than the Wildcats’ inability to stop opponents in the red zone is their failure to control the run game. Opponents have rushed for 230 yards per contest and the Trojans can take advantage, especially with Arizona starting five interior linemen who are either freshmen or sophomores. In last season’s 24-21 victory in Tucson, senior running back Marc Tyler rushed for 160 yards and one touchdown. This season Tyler leads all USC running backs with 303 yards and two touchdowns.
“Marc has been great for us, picking up yards and first downs,” sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods said. “With him doing well, it’ll open up the passing game and play action for us.”
The Trojans have yet to find a No. 2 receiver to ease the pressure off Woods. Kiffin hopes freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee can fill that void, especially after his performance through four games this season.
“I know it’s early to say, but I think he is going to be one of the best receivers ever to play at this school,” Kiffin said. “We got to do a better job of getting him the ball. He continues to make plays almost every opportunity we give him.”
With USC heading into a bye week after this weekend’s matchup, the upperclassman understand the importance of this game and hope the underclassmen will be ready and focused on how to deal with adversity this early in the season, too.
“The older you get, the more you learn how to deal with losses,” senior linebacker Chris Galippo said. “As tough as they are, it’s even worse to lose back-to-back. So we [have to] make sure to win a big game in the Coliseum [going] into the bye week.”