Not many college football pundits or fans could have projected that a November matchup between USC and Arizona would decide sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South. Coming off a 3-9 finish in 2016, which included an eight-game losing streak, Arizona was tabbed for the division's cellar in the preseason media poll and projected as little more than a speed bump for overwhelming preseason favorite USC on its way to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Likewise, few could have envisioned the impact Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate would have — especially given that Brandon Dawkins started for the first month of the season. But Dawkins' injury at Colorado on Oct. 7 opened the door for Tate, and Tate ran through it like he has run through defenses in the last four games.
The Wildcats carry a four-game winning streak into Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where they haven't won since 2009. Meanwhile, the Trojans have rolled off 14 straight victories on home turf, spanning the duration of Clay Helton's tenure as head coach. USC is coming off its best performance of the season since dominating Stanford on Sept. 9, blowing out Arizona State in another showdown for first place in the South.
Saturday night's winner isn't assured a spot at Levi's Stadium for next month's conference championship — but the road will be that much easier.
Arizona at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 10:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: USC -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Star quarterbacks
Ask any coach for a general assessment of quarterbacks, and he will tell you that the position gets too much credit in good times and too much blame in the bad. USC's erstwhile Heisman Trophy contender, Sam Darnold (above, right), is the living embodiment of the truth of that perception.
When the Trojans won nine straight in 2016, Darnold was lauded as the reason. And, indeed, USC's fortunes turned around when Darnold moved into the starting lineup, but the Trojans also improved defensively and in the run game during that span. Meanwhile, this season, Darnold's turnovers have been under intense scrutiny — even more so than the mountain of injuries that have limited USC at various positions.
Khalil Tate is in a role similar to Darnold's a season ago; his insertion into the starting lineup kicked off a winning streak that spanned the month of October and included Arizona's first win over UCLA in six years and an upset of No. 15-ranked Washington State. Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez is apt to point out that a young defense has made strides throughout the season, however, and Arizona has been healthier this season than in any since 2014 — when it last won the South division.
Darnold and Tate will once again occupy the spotlight Saturday night. Whether it's Tate's rushing ability and big arm, or Darnold's gunslinging and pocket presence, one quarterback will come away from the Coliseum a hero.
Coming off a dismal performance against the run at Notre Dame — quarterback Brandon Wimbush and running back Josh Adams both eclipsed 100 yards — USC responded by limiting Arizona State to just 79 yards on the ground. Up next is an Arizona rushing attack with several similarities to that of Notre Dame.
Behind Tate, who is averaging almost 14 yards per carry and has more runs of 50-plus yards than all but five teams in college football, Arizona boasts the nation's fifth-best rushing offense. The only four teams with higher per-game production all run triple-option schemes.
Rodriguez may not oversee a triple option, but Arizona's scheme does rely on a similarly multifaceted approach. Alongside Tate, three different Wildcat running backs have hit 100 yards in the last three games: Nick Wilson vs. UCLA on Oct. 14; Zach Green at Cal on Oct. 21; and J.J. Taylor last weekend vs. Washington State.
Conversely, USC rebounded from a poor rushing game at Notre Dame to roll up a season high at Arizona State. Running back Ronald Jones II dumped more than 200 yards on the Sun Devils. With the Trojans' run game clicking, it's no surprise Darnold operated from a clean pocket and played a turnover-free game.
3. Late-game heroics
Despite winning by comfortable margins a week ago — USC by 31 at Arizona State, Arizona by 21 against Washington State — both the Trojans and Wildcats have shown a flair for the dramatic this season. In its last game at the Coliseum, USC needed a two-point conversion tackle in the open field from cornerback Ajene Harris to thwart an upset bid from Utah.
Meanwhile, Arizona's winning streak in October kicked off with a three-point win at Colorado, and linebacker Colin Schooler batted a two-point conversion attempt pass away to preserve a one-point victory at Cal.
Indeed, close contests have been the M.O. for both of these Pac-12 South pace-setters in 2017. What's more, the Trojans and Wildcats have been wildly competitive with each other in recent years. USC dominated in Tucson last season, despite Tate scoring a rushing touchdown that served as something of a sneak preview for his 2017 star turn. Prior to that 48-14 win, however, every meeting from 2007-15 came down to a single possession.
Expect a similar finish in 2017. Both teams have been tested in such situations this season, and the final minutes should provide an intriguing cat-and-mouse game.
Arizona's run through October, highlighted by Khalil Tate's individual brilliance, is one of the most shocking turns of the 2017 season. Taking over first place in the division in the final month would be a fitting step for a program that, not long ago, was considered a leading candidate for a change in direction.
Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates' unit has overachieved all season long behind freshmen like Colin Schooler, Tony Fields and Kylan Wilborn up front, and a veteran secondary with Demetrius Flanagan-Fowles and Jace Whittaker has made its own strides. The Wildcats have excelled at generating turnovers, which has been USC's primary weakness on offense.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats' explosive run game is up against its own stiff challenge. Porter Gustin's return to the USC defensive front gives the Trojans their strongest look — although the loss of Midseason All-American Christian Rector looms large. Still, Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu, a strong contender for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, give the Trojans the best shot at slowing Tate and Co. that any opponent has had yet.
This should be a wildly entertaining, wildly competitive contest ultimately coming down to a final play. USC has proven adept at making such plays, especially at home.