When the USC defense is on the field…
Somebody hit somebody
Overall, most of USC’s defense played well against ASU on Saturday. Chris Steele and Olaijah Griffin locked down the Sun Devil receivers, holding them to just eight catches and 64 yards. Isaiah Pola-Mao was all over the field with two pass breakups and a tackle for a loss and Talanoa Hufanga led the team with 10 tackles. The entirety of the defensive line executed their responsibilities, led by Marlon Tuipulotu’s sack and two TFL’s, and Drake Jackson had a quiet, yet effective first game as an outside linebacker.
And then there were the two inside linebackers.
Ralen Goforth and especially Palaie Gaoteote left a lot to be desired against ASU. Goforth constantly blitzed the middle, but he was unable to get home outside of a nice tackle for a loss to stall an ASU drive. A positive aspect of these pressures is that Daniels felt the need to get the ball out of his hands quickly, which led to forced throws into tight coverage.
Gaoteote continues to befuddle onlookers. The former five-star may be miscast as an inside linebacker, as his inability to turn off his aggression leads him out of position consistently.
After two tumultuous seasons of Noel Mazzone seemingly sabotaging his own quarterback, Khalil Tate has moved on from Tucson, and Mazzone finally gets to work with the pocket passer he has been waiting for.
Grant Gunnell split significant time with Tate during his freshman campaign, completing 65 percent of his 155 passes for 1239 yards and nine touchdowns. He only threw one interception on the year (courtesy of Kana’i Mauga) and led the Wildcats on their only two scoring drives against USC last season.
At running back, the diminutive JJ Taylor is gone, and Gary Brightwell takes over after averaging 5.9 yards per carry on 66 rushes last season.
Arizona’s leading receiver, Jamarye Joiner, returns in the slot after averaging 16.2 yards per catch and scoring five touchdowns last season. He is joined by Boobie Curry (6 catches, 68 yards) and Brian Casteel (45 catches, 397 yards, 3 TD) on the outside.
U of A should benefit from the continuity of having a clear-cut starting quarterback. For the last two seasons, the team was split on who the starter should be, and that unrest derailed their chemistry. With that settled, Gunnell can feature his impressive arm but will need time to throw with a largely unproven receiving corps.
How they matchup
On Saturday, the Arizona offense needs to exploit the Trojans’ lack of discipline. Make no mistake, Gunnell will throw the football better than Jayden Daniels did for ASU, and Arizona’s receivers will be just as effective, if not more effective, than ASU’s due to their experience.
The Wildcats need their offensive line to produce their best effort of the season in their first game in order to upset the Trojans. If they can generate any semblance of a rushing attack to buy Gunnell more time for downfield shots, there is a chance for success against this defense.
For USC, it’s all about getting their linebackers going. They need to match the performance of the defensive line and secondary to maximize the potential of the entire group. It’s likely that we will see Goforth blitzing all day, so it is up to him to maintain his lanes and get a push in the middle to prevent Gunnell from stepping into his throws. Meanwhile, Gaoteote needs to slow the game down and see the play happening in the backfield before sprinting to a spot, not the other way around.
In the secondary, the Trojans need to watch their hands, as the Wildcats may attempt to stretch the field and force the defensive backs into penalties. With Hufanga playing a heavy role inside the box on run defense, it will be up to Pola-Mao to read Gunnell’s eyes and patrol the deep part of the field as the corners are left one-on-one.