No. 20 USC escaped with a narrow victory against Arizona State last Saturday and now must prepare for another matchup this Saturday at Arizona.
Head coach Clay Helton highlighted that, similar to Arizona State’s, the Arizona defense is relatively unfamiliar to the Trojans. This is because Arizona’s season opener against Utah was canceled due to coronavirus cases on the Utes.
Helton said it is important for the Trojans to lean on their strengths.
“It’s hard when you don’t have a scouted look, you got to really focus on your execution and what you believe in and do things that your kids are good at,” Helton said in a virtual press conference Tuesday. “You worry more about fundamentals and technique and being an execution-based offense, rather than just trying to trick people.”
The Trojans will also need to make adjustments on the defensive side of the ball. Arizona is a huge run-pass-option team and plays with a fast, up-tempo offense. Against Arizona State, the Trojans allowed 258 rushing yards including several big running plays.
According to Helton, it will be important to cut down the yards allowed against a team like Arizona.
“It’s just being real disciplined in our assignments, being able to force that ball back in because this is a huge RPO team and as good as you’ll see in our league,” he said. “The biggest thing for us this week is to handle the tempo of Arizona. This will be the fastest paced team that we face all year.”
On the offensive side, Helton, alongside offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, had high praise for sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis against Arizona State.
Helton said Slovis did not force throws and resorted to checking down if a throw was not there — signs indicating Slovis’ development.
“Where I was most proud [of]with him was the 11 checkdowns that he had instead of forcing the ball,” Helton said. “It’s where his growth has gone to, and that’s what I hope to seek consistently.”
Harrell was also proud of Slovis eliminating his turnovers. Instead of looking to force big plays leading to a turnover, Slovis managed to throw short passes to a running back instead. Harrell called this an “obvious sign of growth.”
“I think that’s a good sign for us,” he said. “I would imagine a lot of people’s goal would be to get soft and try to take away explosives and when they do that you gotta be disciplined enough not to turn the football over and check it down.”
Turnovers were, of course, the main problem for the Trojans against ASU. They had four — one Slovis interception and three fumbles. Harrell said this kept them out of their rhythm on the offensive end.
“We gotta take care of the football,” he said. “We moved the football all day long, so I was confident that we could continue to do that. It just came down to taking care of the football and finding a way to get into the end zone.”
Even with multiple turnovers, the Trojans still managed to run 95 offensive plays. With fewer turnovers, this pace can result in more points on the board and plays overall, which is exactly what Harrell wants.
“I love 95 plays a game for sure,” Harrell said. “The more the better for us I think, but we did a pretty decent job at times playing with good tempo. Lots of plays are fun and good for us.”
One of the fumbles came from redshirt senior running back Vavae Malepeai in the first quarter, when he coughed it up reaching for the goal line on a run. Malepeai, who had a hamstring injury during camp, ended up leading the Trojans in rushing yards.
Malepeai credited the other running backs and the coaching staff with helping him stay confident and in the game.
“Coach Graham and really our whole coaching staff really emphasizes selfless[ness], tough[ness] and discipline and I feel like that played a big role in my mindset in the game,” Malepeai said. “It was just a matter of being happy, being able to enjoy their hard work pay off.”
Sophomore receiver Drake London grabbed the game-winning touchdown and led USC with 125 receiving yards. His evolution as a receiver is crucial for the Trojans, and Harrell emphasized that his performance was not a surprise.
“He’s always been confident and that just continues to grow with the more success he has, so he’s a guy that’s going to play a key role for us,” Harrell said. “He’s as gifted of a receiver I’ve been around, just with the skill set that’s rare in football with his size and ball skills and body control.”
Harrell said the deciding touchdown was a play call they’ve “been really good at” and that their prior success made the younger players feel comfortable
Arizona has veteran coaching and players with the potential to limit the production of London and USC’s other receivers.
The four new defensive coaches for the Wildcats — coordinator Paul Rhoads (28), defensive line coach Stan Eggen (41), outside linebackers coach Andy Buh (17) and defensive backs coach Greg Burns (18) — have a combined 104 years of Division I coaching experience. The Wildcats also have five players who started eight or more games last season on the defensive end.
Redshirt senior defensive back Lorenzo Burns is one of the more experienced of the bunch. He leads Arizona with 35 career starts and nine interceptions. Redshirt junior linebacker Jalen Harris leads returning Arizona players in sacks and tackles for losses. Both will have an important role in containing the Trojans’ offense.
The Trojans will face off against Arizona Saturday at 12:30 p.m.