An important date on the Pac-12 South calendar looms late night in the Sonoran Desert
Getting a handle on the Pac-12 South through four weeks is a fool's errand. Is the lone unbeaten, Colorado, really the team to beat? Is UCLA really as bad as its 0-3 start would indicate? Is this the year Utah finally wins the division? And what of the three 2-2 teams, which include Week 5 opponents, Arizona and USC?
A pair of losses to open the campaign, including a blowout at Houston, sparked concern about the direction of Arizona football with new head coach Kevin Sumlin. The revamped offense lacked the punch showcased during the Wildcats' four-game winning streak last October. Likewise, USC sputtered through a pair of offensively anemic losses at Stanford and Texas in Weeks 2 and 3.
Arizona since recovered to deluge FCS opponent Southern Utah with five Khalil Tate touchdown passes in a Week 3 rout, then 284 rushing yards from J.J. Taylor in a Pac-12-opening romp against Oregon State. USC returned home from its losing skid and showed signs of offensive life in a 39-36 defeat of Washington State for the Trojans' first conference victory.
The question we'll have at least some more clarity on during this installment of #Pac12AfterDark: Just who are Arizona and USC, and what's their respective place in the South's pecking order?
USC at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. JT Daniels and the USC passing attack
In its Week 2 blowout loss at Houston, Arizona dug a deep hole early in part because of its inability to stop the Cougars' long pass plays. Houston quarterback D'Eriq King threw touchdowns of 24 and 52 yards in the first quarter, effectively ending the game barely after it started.
Arizona's defense has had two games since to get things in order in time for what may well be the best wide receiving corps it will face this season. The signs this could be a special group for USC were evident late in the 2017 campaign, with underclassmen Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns coming on strong down the stretch.
Both Pittman and Vaughns are fresh off their best performances of 2018, as both played pivotal roles in the win over Washington State. Pittman scored on a 50-yard play in which he tossed aside a Washington State defender — and with his size, that's a moment Pittman's capable of recreating against smaller defensive backs — and Vaughns made a game-saving catch in which he stopped on a dime and leapt over two defenders.
Add talented freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, who has been Daniels' primary target through the first three weeks, and the Arizona secondary is going to have its hands full.
2. USC's run-stopping defense
The USC front seven is rife with talent. Edge rusher Porter Gustin is a potential first-round draft pick, Cameron Smith is a four-year starter and standout, John Houston Jr. hit his stride late last season, and Christian Rector was one of the Trojans' breakout stars a season ago. And yet, with all that talent, USC has faced struggles in slowing the run, allowing opponents to average five yards per carry a hair below 180 rushing yards per game.
Although offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's implemented a much different look from the Rich Rodriguez system that produced 234 yards on the ground against USC a season ago, last week's breakout performance suggests the Wildcats can still run. J.J. Taylor's 284-yard outing set the pace (and a Reser Stadium record), but Gary Brightwell added another 113 yards. The tandem complemented one another in a fashion not unlike that of Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford for Texas A&M a season ago, when Mazzone coordinated the Aggies' offense.
3. Khalil Tate's big moment?
Tate, a Southern California prep product, garnered recruiting interest from USC, but the Trojans' interest in him as a contributor at a position other than quarterback is one of the slights Tate said pushes him to excel. Though his first two games fell short of the Heisman Trophy expectations placed on Tate's shoulders ahead of the season, the quarterback rallied for a pair of solid games in Arizona's two wins.
Tate's usage as a ball carrier has been limited this season, due in part to a change in scheme, as well as an ankle injury. He limped some in the Oregon State victory, and on the season, he's totaled just 31 yards on the ground. That's 133 fewer than he racked up against USC a season ago.
No matter; Saturday provides Tate a premium platform to prove himself as a passer. He has some outstanding wide receivers to throw to in Shun Brown and Shaun Poindexter, one a smaller, shifty playmaker; the other a long, deep-ball threat. Tate cooking in the passing game against a thin USC secondary could make the difference for Arizona, particularly if he can recreate the success Washington State's Gardner Minshew had attacking with routes of 10-to-15 yards on quick patterns.
Arizona has struggled mightily against USC historically, going on the wrong side of a 33-8 record. The Wildcats' last win in the series came in 2012, in a thrilling, 39-36 shootout. This year's game could have a similar feel. Arizona seems to be figuring out its new offense, and USC should not have the issues running that it did against Stanford or Texas. Though the Wildcats have some impressive youngsters in the front seven, they're still a year or two away from making a serious impact in defensive coordinator Marcel Yates' system.
The biggest question mark for the home team is how it will handle Porter Gustin. Houston's All-America defensive tackle Ed Oliver absolutely bullied the Wildcats up front, making life miserable for Khalil Tate. Gustin plays a different position, but his ability to harass the quarterback and dominate offensive linemen isn't far from that of Oliver. Gustin avoided a second targeting call in as many weeks late against Washington State, so Arizona will not be spared his playmaking presence.
Despite losing each of the past five meetings, Arizona teams have played USC close with the exception of 2016. The trend will continue, but with a familiar result for both teams.
Prediction: USC 41, Arizona 38