USC Should Bounce Back From 1st Loss With Promising Matchup At Arizona

The USC Trojans are set to face a feisty but beatable Arizona Wildcats team. Will Simonds takes a look at what could prove to be an offensive shootout.

Caleb Williams and USC look to the future after tough loss Photo Credit: John McGillen | USC Athletics
Caleb Williams and USC look to the future after tough loss Photo Credit: John McGillen | USC Athletics

The USC Trojans received a needed break after its heartbreaking defeat at Utah on October 15, the Trojans’ first loss of the season. The bye week, smack dab in the middle of the season, gives the team a good chance to refresh, and, perhaps more importantly, get healthy before the home stretch of the season — more on that later.

And luckily for USC, their break, after a physically and mentally demanding game in Salt Lake City, continues for a few more weeks. The Trojans’ next three games are at Arizona, and at home against Cal and Colorado. The record of those teams is a combined 7-14 overall on the season, with just one conference win each. Funny enough, each of those three wins came against each other, so you can make a pretty good case for those being the three worst teams in the conference.

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That’s not a bad upcoming stretch for USC as it tunes up for a pair of rivalry games at UCLA and versus Notre Dame to end the regular season. In fact, if the Trojans win their next three games, a win at the Rose Bowl on November 19 would guarantee them a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game two weeks later, regardless of what happens elsewhere in the conference.

In other words, after Oregon beat UCLA last week, USC controls its own destiny in the Pac-12, though it still needs a little help in reaching the College Football Playoff.

But that’s still a long way away. And the Trojans still can’t simply look ahead to that matchup with UCLA looming in the distance.

Remember the last time USC went to Tucson? It needed an impressive 2-minute drill from Kedon Slovis to retake the lead in the last 30 seconds against a pretty awful Arizona team. Here’s a refresher for those who forgot (side note: wow, Amon-Ra St. Brown is good).

Arizona’s Offensive Outlook

At 3-4, this year’s Arizona team probably isn’t any better than that COVID-year squad, especially on the defensive end. After all, the Wildcats have surrendered 49 points in three of their last four games, and the lone exception is giving up 20 to Colorado (which is arguably a worse performance than the others!). They have the nation’s 8th-worst scoring defense, and 10th-worst run defense and have forced just one turnover in that four-game span.

But Arizona can definitely still score.

The Wildcats have put up at least 31 points in five of their seven games this season, led by quarterback Jayden De Laura, who has quietly been a stud in Tucson after transferring from Washington State. The sophomore ranks top 10 in the country with both 2,274 passing yards and 19 touchdowns, albeit seven interceptions as well.

Arizona also has a solid group of weapons around de Laura, with underrated depth — not USC-caliber depth, but plenty of options nonetheless. The Wildcats have three running backs averaging at least 4.5 yards per carry. All three are used in a pretty steady rotation, so expect to see each of Jonah Coleman, Michael Wiley, and DJ Williams used often on Saturday.

Keeping all three backs fresh could give Arizona a solid advantage against a USC linebacker group dealing with some health concerns. Eric Gentry (ankle) and Ralen Goforth (hand) both sustained injuries against Utah and will be game-time decisions this week, according to Lincoln Riley.

Moving out of the backfield, Arizona also has some dangerous pass-catching options, starting with UTEP transfer receiver Jacob Cowing. Like his quarterback, Cowing also ranks in the top 10 in the nation at his position with 737 receiving yards and seven scores. Additionally, Tetairoa McMillan will be an important deep threat to keep an eye on, averaging almost 17 yards per reception with six touchdowns of his own. And after Utah’s Dalton Kincaid absolutely torched USC two weeks ago, Arizona tight end Tanner McLachlan will probably receive some extra attention from the Trojans’ aforementioned weakened linebacker room.

When you add in Arizona’s quick pace at 23 seconds per play, everything in this game points to a shootout. USC should be happy to match that tempo, as the Trojans’ superior talent is more likely to win out with more possessions in the game.

USC’s Answer

But on the offensive side, USC is dealing with more injuries. Riley would really like to have Jordan Addison, who is also a game-time decision with a knee injury, to test the Wildcats’ deficiencies in the secondary. But, the Trojans might not need their star receiver for a couple of reasons.

First, they have one of the deepest receiver rooms in the country behind Addison, with plenty of guys salivating at the chance to get snaps against Arizona. Look no further than sophomore receiver Michael Jackson III, who scored a touchdown late against Utah in Addison’s absence.

Second, the Trojans might simply be content to run the ball all over Arizona, which is allowing opponents to run for 5.8 yards per carry, the fourth-worst in FBS. In comparison, Travis Dye is averaging 6.4 yards per carry on the season, so he and Caleb Williams could have a field day running the read-option on Saturday afternoon.

I’m not too worried about the Trojans’ offensive prospects this week, and I like them to strike early and often against a pretty awful Arizona defense. After the frustration of that Utah loss, the offense might even let out some of that anger by hanging a big number to reassert themselves as a CFP-caliber unit.

All Things Considered

However, the Wildcats might also have their way against a USC defense with those question marks mentioned earlier. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s bend-don’t-break scheme finally shattered against the Utes, though de Laura and Arizona present a slightly different concern that could be less problematic. While the Utes exposed the Trojans’ issues at linebacker, USC’s pass rush and secondary will be more of a focal point against a pass-heavy Wildcats’ offense. Add in de Laura’s propensity for interceptions, and Grinch’s aggressive game plan could create some turnovers.

I think USC jumps ahead early on Saturday afternoon, but Arizona hangs around for a while. Still, in the end, this is an important opportunity for the Trojans’ defense to bounce back after a bad second half in Salt Lake City two weeks ago. I’ll take a shot and predict a fourth-quarter interception by Calen Bullock to quell a late offensive surge by the Wildcats and end a game that inevitably seems to feature plenty of points.

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Caleb Williams and USC look to the future after tough loss Photo Credit: John McGillen | USC Athletics