Tame the Wildcats: Scondi’s USC vs. Arizona 2017 preview

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

After a resounding win to Arizona State, USC vs. Arizona is about the Trojans continuing to control their destiny against the resurgent Wildcats.

USC is the best team in the nation when it doesn’t have any expectations.

This past Saturday, USC beat Arizona State 48-14. Fans finally got to see this Trojans team play a complete game on both sides of the ball. USC gained 607 total yards on offense. They moved the ball methodically by controlling possession for 34:03 minutes and collecting 29 first downs. The Trojans were explosive with six plays gaining more than 30 yards, which was about a third of the previous total in the last eight games.

Ronald Jones II was only able to get 18 of the 25 carries he was promised by Clay Helton, but the extra work load wasn’t necessary as he ran for over 200 yards and two touchdowns.

Tyler Vaughns has surged in the second half of this season and has become the go-to-guy on passing downs with six receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns.

Michael Pittman Jr. only had two receptions for 23 yards, but proved himself to be a starting receiver on this team with his impressive play. He definitely made his father proud on Saturday night.

Then there’s Sam Darnold, who had 266 yards passing with three touchdowns along with a career long 39-yard run. This was the quarterback Trojans fans fell in love with last year. He was efficient. He was dynamic. Best of all, he didn’t make any mistakes. For the first time this season, USC only had one turnover. It wasn’t a significant one either; Darnold fumbled the ball while being sacked on what would have been a turnover-on-downs anyway. As far as mistakes go, that’s pretty forgivable, especially since this was only his second game this year without an interception.

The team finally showed improvement on all aspects of the offense. Better late than never.

On defense, the Trojans held the Sun Devils to 17 points. Ten points if you take away the last play at the end of the half.

It seems like USC will never learned how to properly defend a Hail Mary against Arizona State. At least this time the secondary didn’t try to field the ball like they were calling for a fair catch. They got the jumping part down. Next time, they just need to bat the ball down instead of trying to pad their stats with an interception.

The game was so far out of reach at that point that I was content with giving up the score before the half just to watch the madness it caused. The Pac-12 can get really drunk during these late games and last weekend was another example.

Besides defending the deep ball, USC’s defense was stout against the Arizona State, limiting the Sun Devils to 70 yards rushing and forcing six sacks.

The Trojans played to a level that has been expected all season. They looked like the team from last year that went on to win nine-straight games after starting the season 1-3.

What does this year’s team have in common with the team from last year? They play at their best when there’s no more pressure.

That isn’t an opinion. Just ask some of the players after last week’s game.

The team couldn’t handle the pressure and it effected how they played. It’s pretty obvious when you compare the first eight weeks to the game against Arizona State. It’s like watching two different USC teams.

This has been an issue for the Trojans since Pete Carroll left. They can’t play to their expectations. Every time they are projected to be one of the best teams in the nation, they fall apart. USC only plays at their best when they are out of the national spotlight. Sure, they’ve won plenty of big games the past two seasons, but only when they weren’t expected to win. They played their best as underdogs and worst as favorites. There’s no pressure when you’re playing with house money.

"“The message of the whole entire week was to have fun and get back to our swagger.” – Cam Smith"

This kind of sentiment was echoed by Chris Hawkins, Sam Darnold, Josh Fatu, Rasheem Green, Nico Falah and Jack Jones. Go out and have fun.

It seems like they can’t have fun when they are projected to contend for the national title.


Is it the coaches? Do they not have the ability to acclimate their players to perform their best at all times, no matter the expectations? It might be, but that can be inherited from experience. Clay Helton may seem stubborn at times, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t growing as a coach every game.

After the loss against Notre Dame, Chris Hawkins met with Coach Helton one-on-one to discuss making some changes the team could make to get back on track. Hawkins felt the team wasn’t close enough so both him and Helton discussed changes they could make to bring everyone together. One of those changes was subtle, but effective.

Have you’ve ever tried working out without headphones? Do you know how awful it is to get to the gym and realize you left your ear buds at home? Sometimes when that happens, I just pack up and leave because I know I am not going to be able to work out at my best without some music. Try running while listening to NPR. Then try running while listening to your favorite Spotify playlist. I guarantee you shave a minute or two off of your mile time by switching from Terry Gross to Kendrick Lamar.

I can imagine the same type of response from players when music was brought back to practice. Things got more relaxed. They were having more fun and probably felt more comfortable being there. I’ve done the Friday walk-through before. If it’s tense, it’s going to lead to a lot of over thinking and anxiety about the upcoming game.

While I can’t imagine Nick Saban ever taking suggestions from his players, USC isn’t Alabama and never will be, so they have to try to bring back the loose culture that Pete Carroll had. Maybe Helton can get Johnny Knoxville to come back and receive punts again.

It’s great that Clay Helton is learning and getting better every week. He may not be able to lead a team to a national championship now, but he’s on track to get their very soon. He’s never seemed to have crumbled under pressure on the sideline since the punt fiasco against Utah last year. Since then, he’s coached extremely well late in games. Too well, in fact, since USC seems to only show up in the second half of games this season.

If it isn’t the coaches to blame for failing to live up to expectations, is it the players?

A majority of starters on this team are juniors whose only success in college football came last year. They don’t necessarily have a plethora of experience dealing with adversity unless you want to count the coaching turnover some have had to deal with over the last four years. The most pressure they’ve felt in their playing career has probably come from this season.

Think about where a lot of these guys came from. Most of the roster played at marquee high schools where they beat up on opponents all season long. The most difficulty they faced before playing for the Trojans was selecting which highlights go into their YouTube compilation video.

The mix of young and seasoned players only corresponds to their experience on the field. They all have faced a similar amount of pressure as USC Trojans. That’s fine for now. This seems to be the theme of the season but this team wasn’t ready for the expectations they were given. Sadly, USC is still in rebuilding mode since Pete Carroll left in 2010. Blame the sanctions, coaching hires, etc. Until USC has high expectations every year they will never be able to learn to play under pressure.

It takes time. Just look at Clemson. Before they won the National Championship, the Tigers were known for “Clemsoning”, which is “the act of failing miserably on a grand athletic stage, or when the stakes are high” according to Urban Dictionary. They failed to live up to expectations so many times it became a well-known term used in college football world. However, Clemson was eventually able to use that experience to reach the championship game and win it. It takes time to get that monkey off of your back.

USC needs to walk before it can run. A national title run that is.

The best first step is winning the Pac-12 title. They’ll have to beat Arizona to get a chance.

Arizona Team Preview

Note: As always, Bill Connelly’s team preview of Arizona was invaluable to my research. He gets the credit.


Arizona has already surpassed their win projections for this year, going 6-2 in the first eight games of the season. They’ve definitely surprised many with their inspiring play, earning themselves a No. 22 ranking in the first College Football Playoff poll of the season.

Their two losses were in close games, losing to Houston 19-16, and Utah 30-24. Those losses don’t hold much water to the success of the team because they were BKT (Before Khalil Tate). The Wildcats have gone 4-0 with Tate starting this year, going undefeated in October for the first time since 1992. That was six years and nine months before Khalil Tate was even conceived.


Both coaches of the Arizona schools were coming into their sixth season on the hot seat, but quickly found a way to cool off by exceeding their team’s projections for the year.

One game against USC turned the heat back up on Todd Graham. Hopefully Rich Rodriguez suffers the same fate.

Rich Rodriguez or Rich Rod is 43-31 at Arizona with a 162-115-2 overall record as a head coach. He made a name for himself at West Virginia and was able to get the Michigan job off of that success. Unfortunately, he wasn’t good enough for the Wolverines, getting fired after three years. After taking a year off, he found himself in Arizona.

The temperature in Tuscon must be doing a number to Rich Rod’s mental state with the real life hallucination he filmed for Arizona’s hype video for the 2016 season.

Maybe he just likes to dress up as Gladiator in his free time.

Rich Rod seemed to have saved his job by switching from Brandon Dawkins to Khalil Tate halfway through the season, but isn’t it a huge lapse in judgement to have one of the most talented players in college football sitting on the bench at the beginning of the year?

Clay Helton, care to comment?


Arizona has one of the best ranked offenses in the nation. They lead the Pac-12 in scoring with 45 points per game.

Their offense is basically Tate playing a lot like Michael Vick in Madden 2004. He’s Bo Jackson in “Tecmo Bowl,” but with an arm.

He took over for an injured Brandon Dawkins against Colorado and ever since then he’s taken the college football world by storm.

Since being named starter, he’s won not one…

Not two…

Not three…

But four consecutive Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors.

This season, Tate has thrown for 784 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. Most of his damage has been on the ground where he has run for 926 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s currently the leading rusher on the team with 13.4 yards per carry.

He’s a quarterback! There’s only two Power 5 players that have run for more yards in a month since 2004 and they are both currently running backs on the Los Angeles Chargers: Melvin Gordon and Andre Williams. He’s starting to be considered for the Heisman Trophy and he’s started just four games. Sam Darnold couldn’t even get votes after he led USC to the Rose Bowl. That should show you how big of an impact he’s making for his team.

I cannot tell you how scared I am of Khalil Tate this Saturday. He makes the defense look like they are stuck in quicksand. He’s running on Google Fiber while his opponents have dial-up.

He can’t be legal. I refuse to believe this isn’t the Road Runner in a helmet. Someone paint a fake tunnel to the locker rooms just to make sure.

The worst part is, he’s only one part of Arizona’s rushing attack which is ranked fifth nationally with 342.7 yards per game. The Wildcats have three running backs with at least one 100-yard rushing game this year. J.J. Taylor has 518 yards and four touchdowns. Nick Wilson has 353 yards and three touchdowns. Zach Green has 277 yards and six touchdowns.

Passing should seem like a secondary thought when it comes to Arizona’s offense, but the Wildcats have deep threats with wide receivers Shun Brown and Tony Ellison. On the season, Brown has 24 receptions for 353 yards and four touchdowns. Ellison has 22 receptions for 395 yards and two touchdowns. Both have had multiple catches of 40 yards and average much higher yards per reception than their USC counterparts.

The ball doesn’t get thrown much, but when it does, it’s going deep. Although sometimes it gets thrown to  freshman tight end Byrce Wolma, who has 24 receptions for 212 yards and two touchdowns.

Arizona’s offensive success could be a result of their experienced line which has combined for 130 career starts and 165 games played. They only have allowed five sacks this season, which is either a sign of their pass protection ability or the fact that Tate could trip and still gain five yards.

Scared of Khalil Tate yet? Yes? Too bad.

Arizona can score quick and they can move the ball in big chunks. They lead the nation with 36 offensive plays of at least 30 yards this season. The Wildcats also have 11 touchdowns from 50 yards out, with Tate collecting five on his own. Four of those touchdowns totalled more than 70 yards.

Schedule your pee breaks accordingly because if you head to the bathroom during a TV timeout you may miss a couple of touchdowns by the time you get back.


As much as USC is scared of Arizona’s offense, the Wildcats defense is probably feeling the same after seeing how the Trojans moved the ball against Arizona State last week.

Arizona is ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in total defense. They have the worst passing defense in the conference, and lack experience on every level.

In his first year, defensive coordinator Marcel Yates was supposed to rejuvenate the Wildcats defense, especially with recruitment. Unfortunately, injuries prevented any improvement, and a 3-9 record prevented a strong recruiting class for 2017.

The second year isn’t any better. They lost all their linebackers and two of their three starting linemen and as a result have had to start five true freshman on their defense. Despite a class full of three-star recruits, these players are the top freshman in several categories in Pac-12 and Power 5 statistics. That might be because true freshman shouldn’t see the field unless they are a transcendent talent or the last resort on a depleted team. With Arizona’s lack of success on the defensive side, it’s a lot of the latter.

Arizona runs a 3-3-5 defense. It’s a little different from the normal 3-4 defense because the secondary consists of two cornerbacks, a free safety, and two safeties known as the spur and the bandit. Both need to be able to handle any situation.

The spur is more of a linebacker/safety hybrid. He lines up on the strong side and must be able to have the speed to keep up with athletic tight ends in coverage and the strength to take on offensive lineman on run plays. The bandit is more of a hybrid cornerback/safety that lines up on the weak side and communicates the assignments to  rest of the secondary.

On the defensive line, true freshman defensive end Kylan Wilborn leads the team and all Power 5 freshman with six sacks.

The linebackers are led by true freshman Tony Fields. Fields has four double-digit tackle games this season and is second on the team in sacks. He leads all freshman in Pac-12 in tackles. In fact, three of the top five freshman tacklers in the conference are Arizona players.

Their secondary seems to be the closest thing to a strength. Cornerback Jace Whittaker will play in his 16th straight start this Saturday. That’s pretty good considering half his defense was still taking the ACT this time last year. Whittaker is second in the Pac-12 in passes defended with nine pass breakups and three interceptions.

His partner in crime, Lorenzo Burns, has four pass breakups and two interceptions in the last four games. Burns is also second in the team in tackles.

Finally, safety Dane Cruikshank has 43 tackles in eight games. Judging by the statistics in the secondary, this defense seems to allow a lot of offenses to get to the second level.

The USC offense should have no trouble moving the ball against Arizona. They just have to make sure they don’t get in their own way. The Wildcats have forced two or more turnovers in seven of eight contests in 2017 with 19 turnovers total. The Trojans have turned over the ball two or more times in seven of eight contests in 2017 with 20 turnovers total. Unstoppable force meets extremely movable object.

Special Teams

On special teams, Arizona has two kickers. Josh Pollack has taken the majority of the kicks and is 43-for-45 on extra points and 10-for-14 on field goals. Lucas Havrisik is the deep threat going 1-for-2 on field goals, breaking the school record last week with a 57-yarder.

For most of the season, Arizona had Jake Glatting at punter. A well-below average of 36.5 yards per punt led to the Wildcats being dead last in net punting in the Pac-12.  It also led to his benching. Josh Pollack now has to pull double duty for Arizona. He averaged 39.4 yards per punt against Washington State. Those three extra yards apparently make a big difference.

The Wildcats have some of the best punt and kick return teams in the conference. Shun Brown has two punt returns for touchdowns. Hopefully USC has improved in their special teams coverage after their Week 1 lapse against the “Adoree’ Jackson of Western Michigan”.


This section is devoted to the long time tradition of creating scenarios in which USC can make the College Football Playoff.

This is the first week of College Football Playoff rankings, which means it’s officially time to start hypothesizing how a two-loss USC team can still make the College Football Playoff.

It doesn’t look good and I can’t in good conscience give fans false hope about national title aspirations…yet.

This is basically what it looks like at this point, and honestly, not looking very realistic. I’d love to see all this happen because I love chaos, but I just don’t see USC breaking into the Top 4 this year. Best case scenario is a New Year’s Six bowl game which will only happen if the Trojans win the Pac-12 title. The only way they can win the Pac-12 title is by winning the Pac-12 South.

Like last week, if USC wins, they control their destiny in the Pac-12 South title race. If Arizona wins, the Trojans will need some help to win the division, like Khalil Tate declaring for the draft before Thanksgiving.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go

It was either a game at noon or after 7 PM. As someone who doesn’t want to wake up at the crack of dawn to tailgate, I couldn’t be more thrilled about the start time. Fans probably won’t get home before midnight, but try to imagine an early kickoff time. By the time you get dressed, you would have to head into the stadium.

It’s Homecoming weekend, and somehow the football gods graced us with what might be the most exciting game of the season. Two high-scoring offenses playing under the lights for a chance at the conference title? If you don’t have a ticket, buy one. It’s the second-to-last home game of the year. No excuse to go. Unless you still have a curfew.

Also, don’t forget: Pac-12 After Dark!

Things get weird in the conference once the sun sets.


USC’s key to the game: STOP. KHALIL. TATE.

That’s it. That’s all the Trojans need to do to win the game.

So, how can they do it?

On offense, USC needs to come out of the gate like they did against Arizona State. The first drive will determine the tempo of the game. If the Trojans score, they can force Arizona to play catch up the whole first half as long as they respond to each score by the Wildcats.

USC needs to eat clock as much as possible. Keep Arizona’s offense off the field.

It should be easier with the return of Stephen Carr. After being out several weeks with a foot injury, it looks like the Trojans rushing attack will get a boost. The Texas Tesla was motoring last week, but now the new Carr is back from the shop to provide USC with double the horsepower in the backfield.

The Trojans offense will need to create long-sustained drives for scores and by scores, I mean touchdowns. Trojans can’t cap off a drive with a field goal. Can’t risk putting three points on the board when Arizona could easily put up seven a few minutes later.

Looks like Clay Helton already got my memo. “Cantaloupes Clay” is willing to roll the dice on fourth down no matter the situation. USC has come a long way from punting inside the 50-yard line against Utah a year ago.

Does USC need to pass? I know Arizona has one of the worst passing defenses in the Pac-12, but is throwing the ball really necessary? The Trojans should keep passing plays short and simple. Don’t get cute and don’t be risky. The Wildcats are second in the conference in turnover margin. USC has shown that when they don’t turn the ball over, they win games.

On defense, the Trojans aren’t going to have fun trying to stop Khalil Tate, especially with Porter Gustin out this week. Sure, Gustin didn’t do too well against Tate last year, but I rather have him than any backup.

Is this Clay talking up a player to boost his confidence, or genuine praise for one of his players? Gustin hasn’t really showed the ability to change direction this year. It may be because of the screws in his foot, or the fact that all those muscles limit his mobility. Either way, USC needs as much speed on the defense as possible to stop Tate and the rushing attack.

Great strategy having USC’s two fastest players imitate Tate on the scout team offense. He’s basically a running back that can throw the ball. Hopefully the defense has more success against him than they did against Brandon Wimbush.

When USC played Arizona last year, Tate struggled. Was it the Trojans defensive scheme or the fact that he was true freshman in his first start ever? I guess fans will find out this Saturday.

Tate is extremely dangerous, but he’s just one person. He may be the best player on the field, but the next 11 on that list are lined up against him. USC is the superior team. If they repeat their performance last week, they will have no trouble against Arizona.

No pressure. Just play loose and have fun.

USC 42, Arizona 35