USC football faces their first road test of the season against Arizona
After one weekend of football in the Pac-12, one thing is clear: the conference has hopped on the same rollercoaster as every other team in America.
The Pac-12’s six-week schedule with no room for error has already erred, as the Trojans’ opponent this week, the Arizona Wildcats, already had their Week 1 contest with Utah canceled after the Utes reported insufficient scholarship players amid rising coronavirus cases in the Salt Lake area.
Now, the Trojans, fresh off an alarming, yet thrilling 28-27 victory over Arizona State, head to the Grand Canyon State as 14-point favorites against U of A.
When USC football’s offense is on the field…
The anti-turnover chain
Most games where an offense gains 556 total yards — 381 through the air and 175 yards on the ground — are resounding successes. However, it sure didn’t feel like that on Saturday as the Trojans dinked and dunked and fumbled and bumbled their way down the field against ASU.
The Trojans ran 95 plays, largely due to the fact that Kedon Slovis averaged just 6.9 yards per passing attempt (down from 8.9 in 2019) and the team averaged only 4.4 yards per carry. The Sun Devils stuck to a four-man rush with seven defenders dropping into a zone for the entirety of the contest to force the Trojans to sustain drives without crippling mistakes — a challenge, to say the least, in the Helton-era.
USC turned the ball over four times, three times in ASU territory, and were stopped on downs on two other occasions. If not for an outstanding performance by receiver Drake London and some fortuitous bounces on a downfield heave and an onside kick, the Sun Devils would currently top the division.
Last season, USC started slowly against the Wildcats with three points in their first four drives, before rattling off 38 points in just over three quarters. Graham Harrell’s offense needs to avoid another such start, as Arizona may be more capable of putting up points early on this season.
Markese Stepp was USC’s featured back that game until he tore ligaments in his ankle in the third quarter. After that, USC called upon Keenan Christon for a spark, and he answered with 55- and 30-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter as USC pulled away for a 41-14 victory.
The gang’s all here. That’s good…right?
Prior to Covid-19 delaying the Pac-12 football season, the Wildcats returned 79 percent of their production from last year, which was good for 24th in the nation. Yet, the 114th ranked team in defensive SP+ from a year ago experienced crucial losses following the postponement of the conference’s season, and much of that production chose to play elsewhere.
The disastrous 2019 campaign led head coach Kevin Sumlin to bring in Paul Rhoads to replace defensive coordinator Marcel Yates. Over the offseason, Rhoads implemented a base 3-4 defense that will provide different looks based on the offensive personnel.
On the defensive line, Arizona features two graduate transfers in defensive end Aaron Blackwell (New Mexico) and nose tackle Roy Lopez (20 career TFL at New Mexico State). Kyon Barrs rounds out the unit at defensive tackle.
At linebacker, the Wildcats leading tackler in 2019, Colin Schooler, decided to transfer to Texas Tech amid uncertainty of a Pac-12 season occurring. Their second-leading tackler, Tony Fields II, transferred to West Virginia. That leaves senior Anthony Pandy (66 tackles) and freshman Derick Mourning as the inside linebackers, and redshirt freshman Kwabena Watson and junior Jalen Harris (6.5 TFL, 4 sacks) as the outside linebackers.
The secondary is led by Lorenzo Burns who had four interceptions at cornerback last season. Opposite him is Christian Roland-Wallace, and the safeties are Jaxen Turner and Jarrius Wallace, who both saw limited playing time last year.
How they matchup
This season, Arizona’s defense doesn’t appear to pose a threat at any level. Coming off an abysmal defensive season, the Paul Rhoads hire is a bit perplexing. His most recent defenses were terrible, ranking 104th in SP+ at Iowa State in 2015 and 91st at Arkansas in 2017.
If anything, this game is about USC proving that they shook off the rust in Week 1. Schematically, it would be surprising if the Wildcats strayed from the blueprint that BYU, Notre Dame, and ASU laid out against the Trojans. Former USC defensive backs coach, Greg Burns, is now in charge of U of A’s secondary, so he has ample experience against Harrell’s offense, and can look to what Chris Hawkins’ secondary did against the Trojans last week.
Plus, the Wildcats simply don’t have the bodies to match up with the talent that USC brings to the table. They need to stack the box to discourage the run and play a zone that forces Slovis and company to stay patient and execute repeatedly.
The most intriguing aspect of this week’s game is tracking the personnel decisions made by Harrell and his staff. Last week, Amon-Ra St. Brown began as the outside receiver to Slovis’ left but by the end of the game was in the slot with Bru McCoy playing outside. That combo appeared to apply more pressure to ASU and created space for London in the opposite slot.
Also, keep an eye on the running back rotation this week. Stephen Carr was the most consistent Trojan back against ASU and did not put the ball on the turf. He will likely start with Vavae Malepeai (who closed well for USC) and Stepp splitting carries behind him. It remains to be seen if Christon will garner a few carries given that he ran for 103 yards against U of A last season, but it’s obvious that the Trojan offense needs a shot in the arm from his game-breaking speed.
On the offensive line, Brett Neilon is nursing an ankle injury, so Justin Dedich may be back in action at center for the Trojans after closing out the game last Saturday. The interior of the USC line featuring LG Andrew Vorhees, C Neilon or Dedich, and RG Liam Jimmons remains the best place for an opposing defense to attack, which means the Wildcats need big games from Roy Lopez and Kyon Barrs.