The Arizona Wildcats and USC Trojans were expected to enter Saturday's game with the Pac-12 South on the line and a chance at a New Year's Day bowl. With the College Football Playoff well out of reach for both teams, Saturday's game becomes more about survival and bowl eligibility than anything else. With five wins apiece and some tough games remaining for both teams, Saturday is a golden opportunity for either team to start their final push on the front foot.
USC head coach Clay Helton has been an inspiring force behind USC's success this season after starting his interim campaign with a hard-to-swallow loss to an Irish team that looked down and out early in the game. In keeping with their recent theme of blowing late leads, the Trojans squandered away a fourth quarter lead, ended up losing in South Bend and all signs pointed to more of the same. Then the Trojans welcomed the No. 3 Utah Utes into the Coliseum the next week. Instead of folding, USC sent them back to Utah with a humiliating defeat and a loud statement that this team was down, not out.
While the score line at Cal read much differently than the one at the Coliseum, many pundits came away feeling like that was one of USC's most complete games of the season. More important than winning the game, the Trojans showed they could put an opponent away late in the game, create mayhem on defense, move the ball almost at will, and create long, sustained drives capable of milking the clock and resulting in points. In all, USC played a fantastic game and nobody looking at the box sheets would have noticed.
Quarterback Cody Kessler stuck to the same script he used against Utah and the results were the same. Never doing more than he needed, Kessler finished the night 18-of-22 for 186 yards and zero touchdowns. USC didn't even have a running back with more than 100 yards — Ronald Jones II grabbed 80, Tre Madden had 64, and Justin Davis supplemented with an additional 42. Deontay Burnett, a true freshman and a blueshirt, led the entire receiving corps with 82 yards.
If anyone had predicted the Trojans would pass for less than 200 yards, would not produce a 100-yard rusher, wouldn't have a single receiver over 100 yards and would beat Cal on the road in a dominant performance, they would have crucified and yet that's exactly what happened on Saturday. The Trojans shut down Cal's offense and held them to a season low in total yards. Magical things happen when teams are efficient on offense, run ball, stop the run, and take care of the football. Helton has instilled that mantra into this USC team and they're running with it.
There can be no denying that Arizona isn't having their finest year and the spread for this game (-17.5) is probably fair. Like Cal the week before, Arizona are coming off two back-to-back losses and struggling to stay afloat in the conference race. Fortunately for the Wildcats, three of their four losses are to Pac-12 North teams, which means that they still have it all to play for in the coming weeks. Finishing strong with USC, Utah, and Arizona State is a tough ask for anyone, but the Wildcats have been a resilient and surprising program under head coach Rich Rodriguez. Don't be surprised if they win a game or two that the stats say they should lose.
Arizona at USC
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: USC -17.5
Three Things to Watch
1. USC's Ability to Stop the Wildcat Offense
The Wildcats rank No. 2 in the Pac-12 in scoring, total offense, and rushing, and they are No. 1 in the conference in first downs gained. Much of this offense is set up by their ability to run the football and run it with relative ease. Senior RB Jared Baker needs only 130 yards to go over 1,000 for the season and he had three touchdowns against USC last year.
The Wildcats made it a point to emphasize their three-headed rushing attack this week, noting that the 'Cats have a trio of 500-yard rushers for the first time since 1991. While leading rusher Nick Wilson has been sidelined with an injury for a spell, QB Jerrard Randall has filled in the gaps with 685 rushing yards as the Wildcats try to funnel their offense through Baker instead of Wilson. They've done this successfully, most of 559 yards have come in the last three games. He will surely be someone to watch.
As if the running backs weren't enough to worry about, the Wildcats have four receivers more than capable of torching a defensive game plan. As it currently stands, Samajie Grant, Cayleb Jones, Nate Phillips, and Dave Richards have amassed 5,246 receiving yards and 39 touchdowns in their careers. Five 'Zona receivers have 20+ receptions in 2015, that puts them at No. 3 in the nation in that category.
The Wildcats are also No. 4 in the nation with 6.05 yards per carry, tied for No. 7 with 25 rushing touchdowns, tied for No. 6 in the nation with 66 rushing plays of ten or more yards, and are tied for No. 1 in the nation with 15 rushing plays of more than 30 yards. As a team, the Wildcats average 265 rushing yards per game, good enough to put them at No. 11 in the nation. They can move the ball in a hurry and score easily.
2. Staying True to What Works
The Trojans have managed to revitalize their season by keeping it simple. For far too long, a criticism surrounding the USC program was almost Arsenal-like; the Trojans simply had to walk the ball in instead of getting it there by any means necessary. The Trojans always had the bodies to be the most physically dominant team in the conference, but coaches were trying to finesse the ball into tight spaces instead of running over them. There is probably no way to quantify the number of times "getting cute" cost the Trojans in tight ball games, but ask around and people could tell you all about it. Now that has changed.
The Trojans have gone back to a more physical rushing attack and used their stable of backs to keep defenses guessing. This has given USC myriad options when sending in the play-calls. By mixing in the run game, the Trojans have opened up things for their speedier receivers and playmakers like Adoree' Jackson. When USC make teams honor the run, there simply aren't enough college corners capable of covering their receivers in space, let alone tracking them down once they are running free. The Trojans have balanced the run and the pass, and moved away from forcing the offense through one or two players. Former head coach Steve Sarkisian had the distribution down, but Helton has transformed this offense into a far more efficient beast by simplifying the offense.
3. USC Must Eliminate Penalties
November is that month of the season where the little things come back to hurt you just a little bit more. Everybody wants the game a little bit more. Some teams need games a little bit more. The high stakes nature of the final season push magnify team performances like no other. Now more than ever, USC must eliminate penalties if they want to keep pace in the Pac-12 South crown.
The Trojans currently ranked eleventh in the conference for penalties with 551 total yards, an average of 68.9 yards per game. Only UCLA are worse in the Pac-12 with 78.1 yards per game in penalties. On a national level, the Trojans are ranked No. 102 in penalties. Worse than that, the Trojans are ranked No. 117 in the nation when it comes to drawing penalties on their opponents. USC's opponents average fewer than five (4.4) flags per game and just 42 yards of penalties.
It's one thing to give opponents free yards, it's an entirely different thing to beat yourself with mistakes when your opponent is playing a clean game. USC is often most impacted by these mistakes following chunk plays on offense. Though the Trojans have cleaned up some of their mistakes under Helton, penalties have been business as usual under this staff. USC spotted Cal 65 yards of penalties on just six flags. The Golden Bears had only 26 yards of penalties. In a game decided by less than a touchdown, these are the types of mistakes that can cost teams a victory.
USC is riding a wave of momentum right and this is too big of an ask for an Arizona team without several of their leaders. Even though USC is limited by injuries, the Trojans are bringing more guns to this fight than the Wildcats and the results ought to match. What should be on paper hasn't always been the reality, however, as these two have put on some thrilling contests in recent years.
USC know that it can expect a fight from the Wildcats, but should be able stall the Wildcats' ability to rush the ball and force them into a passing game. USC has done a tremendous job of limiting guys like Devontae Booker and Daniel Lesco, so they should be up to the challenge this weekend. USC and Arizona almost always entertain, but this game doesn't quite have that feel.
The Trojans know they need this one and Helton will have the team prepared accordingly.
Prediction: USC 41, Arizona 22
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for Reign Of Troy, USC’s FanSided affiliate. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.