Saturday night’s USC vs. Arizona final score is a good looking one for the Trojans. But the injury-riddled game was far from it.
A 41-14 Trojan victory would’ve been a USC vs. Arizona final score fans would’ve loved to see going in. But a slow, gritty, injury-plagued game took away some shine of what appears on paper to be a dominant win.
The lowdown: What was expected to be a shootout turned into a defensive struggle highlighted by poor offensive play from both teams, and costly Arizona turnovers to fuel USC’s lackluster blowout.
Case in point, the Trojans jumped out to a 10-0 lead thanks to a pair of Wildcat fumbles setting them up on short fields. This was despite USC starting the game with four-straight three-and-outs against a defense that ranked 126th nationally in forcing them.
It wasn’t until the end of the second quarter the offense seemed to come alive. Markese Stepp capped off a 10-play, 87-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown run to give Troy a 17-0 lead they’d take to the half.
In the second half, Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin took the keys from Khalil Tate and gave them to true freshman phenom Grant Gunnell. He wouldn’t be sacked six times like Tate was, but wasn’t much better for the Wildcats. A Kana’i Mauga interception on his first drive led to a 20-0 lead, before quarterback Kedon Slovis threw his second touchdown pass minutes later, finding Tyler Vaughns to run it to 27-0.
The teams would trade garbage time touchdowns to finish up at 41-14.
But the story of the night for USC was the injuries. Not only were multiple players missing from the lineup —starters Vavae Malepeai, Christian Rector, Palaie Gaoteote, Olaijah Griffin and Greg Johnson —but six Trojans left Saturday night’s game due to injury.
This includes star safety Talanoa Hufanga (shoulder), running back duo Stephen Carr (hamstring) and Markese Stepp (ankle), freshman wide receiver Munir McClain (knee), and young pass rushers Drake Jackson (ankle) and Abdul-Malik McClain (shoulder). Head coach Clay Helton was unable to offer any further postgame injury update.
True freshman speedster Kenan Christon saw his first action of the season in place of Carr and Stepp and promptly took advantage. The running back kicked off the fourth quarter scoring with a 55-yard touchdown to give USC a 34-0 lead. He finished with 103 yards on the night.
The takeaway: Saturday night’s game belonged on the Pac-12 Networks. America is better off having hardly watched. USC’s offense was an unpublished Picasso, while Arizona’s resembled a three-year-old’s finger painting. Add in the injuries and it probably would’ve been for the best to just sim it.
But the game happened. It did exist.
To USC’s credit, the defense did what they’re supposed to do against a team having a poor offensive night. Bury them. That they did. A shaky Khalil Tate was sacked six times, and tallied negative-27 rushing yards with a sub-100 passer rating. It took a pair of Gunnell touchdown passes in garbage time to avoid a shutout.
Offensively, the night belonged to Kenan Christon, who came off the bench to have a stellar debut, rushing for 103 yards on eight carries, with a pair of long touchdowns. He showed just how valuable his speed is, making him a potential weapon for the Trojans going forward whether or not Malpepai, Carr and Stepp are healthy in front of him.
But for as much of a revelation he was —a la Buck Allen against these same Wildcats in 2013 on a similar injury-plagued night— that Christon had to feature so prominently is a major concern for USC going forward.
For big swaths of the game, the Trojans were down six defensive starters and what are essentially are all three co-starters at running back. This is bad news, with Colorado coming up on a short week. Who knows who will be able to actually practice this upcoming week. And did we mention runaway train Oregon is looming?
USC desperately needs another bye week, but won’t get one until if, and only if, they win the Pac-12 South. Fortunately, that quest is looking good for another week. The Trojans sit in first place at 3-1, with a tiebreaker win over Utah.
Player of the game: Kana’i Mauga had 13 tackles —2.0 for loss— and an interception in his first career start, filling in in place of injured Palaie Gaoteote.
Stat of the game: With a turnover margin of plus-2, USC won the turnover battle for the first time since last September. They failed to do so in 17-straight games.
Next on tap: The 4-3 Trojans now move into a short week, with a road game at Colorado (3-4) on Friday night.