So it turns out that this year wasn’t the year for Colorado. Though valiant in their efforts against USC last week, the Buffalos came up short when it mattered most and settled for field goals instead of touchdowns. Due to injury, Colorado star quarterback Sefo Liufau was withheld by the coaching staff because he wasn’t “100 percent,” a decision that could come back to haunt Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre.
For USC, the game was a much more humbling experience for quarterback Sam Darnold. After lighting it up against Arizona State, Darnold was 25-of-37 with three touchdowns and an interception. He also threw for 358 yards. What made that experience humbling? Colorado was able to turn his interception into points, thus resulting in a much closer game that Colorado could have won toward the end.
Darnold continues to show the nation and the Trojan family why the quarterback competition was so close coming out of fall camp. The fact that Darnold was able to unseat former starter Max Browne and stave him off with his brilliant play proves that former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was right to aggressively pursue the young quarterback at the expense of fellow recruit, Ricky Town.
Now Darnold will have to test his skills against another high-flying offense. Even though Arizona is off to a poor start, all of its losses – with perhaps the exception of BYU – have come against top opponents and been close games. This is a team that knows how to score points and give opponents fits with its creative looks. If the Trojans intend to win this game, they will need to be as creative as they were against Colorado.
One of the significant factors behind USC’s success against the Buffalos was the incorporation of tight ends back into the offense. All three of the Trojans’ touchdowns were caught by tight ends. Tyler Petite had two of them and Daniel Imatorbhebhe added another late in the fourth to secure the win for the Trojans. If Darnold continues to exploit all of USC’s offensive weapons, it’s going to be a long year for defensive coordinators.
USC at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 15 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: USC -9
Three Things to Watch
1. Sam Darnold Must Maintain Status Quo
Nothing much to change from this paragraph. It remains as true now as it did last week. It’s really not fair to ask this of Darnold, but a scholarship, particularly a quarterback scholarship, comes with it a ton of extra expectations. If a young prospect truly wants to blossom into a household name in Los Angeles, backing away from a fight isn’t going to earn you any points. More to the point, this was a guy who pushed Max Browne until the very last possible moment; he’d best be able to deliver and last Saturday proved he was game.
Against Arizona, however, Darnold must work on ball security and game management. It’s always great to post video game stats, but it’s far more important if those stats are producing points, advantageous field position, and wearing out the opposing defense. We saw a healthy amount of this last week against Colorado, but now Darnold is going to have to do it in a game that the Wildcats usually circle at the beginning of the year.
2. Stop the Hydra Or Hail Hydra
One of the problems defensive coordinators face when going up against the Wildcats are the myriad looks given by Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez. This year Rodriguez has a trident of talented quarterbacks that he’s not afraid to use in any situation. If USC can contain the edges of the pocket and set the perimeter on defense, then the Men of Troy should be able to leave Tucson with victory in hand (literally).
Leading the way for the Wildcats is Brandon Dawkins. Dawkins is 69-of-118 for nearly a thousand yards and averaging eight yards per pass attempt. Ball security is a bit of an issue with him, but the same could be said of fellow quarterbacks Anu Solomon and Khalil Tate. Of the three, USC is most likely to see heavy doses of Dawkins with a healthy smattering of Tate, who has figured more into the offense the last two weeks. Tate threw for two touchdowns in a losing effort to UCLA and had a touchdown and an interception in last week’s loss to Utah.
3. Trojans Must Figure Out Who They Are
For the last five years, USC has been chasing ghosts of the past while missing every opportunity in the present. The start to 2016 has been rough, but all of the Trojans’ goals are still in front of them, to quote Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter. A win against Arizona would bring the Trojans to 3-2 in Pac-12 play. With Cal and Oregon on the horizon, this win would provide a huge boost to USC’s confidence.
Speaking of confidence, the last two weeks have shown that the Trojans still have some buried deep away, despite all the failed expectations. This is a young and hungry team. Darnold’s infusion into the offense has not only opened up a more diverse playbook, but given opposing defensive coordinators more to worry about than just Student Body Left/Right, quick slants, and bubble screens. As Darnold continues to mature, so will USC. Along with that, hopefully this team discovers the identity it’s been sorely lacking for several years.
Throwing logic out the window proved to be as effective as Bayern Munich’s attempt to play three at back against Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals two years ago or even perhaps as effective as the Maginot Line. Either way, it wasn’t a very effective tool for trying to narrow down the consistency of this USC team. This week, I am reverting back to good, old-fashioned history.
USC has lost twice against Arizona going back to 2006. The Trojans lost in 2009 and then again in the rather infamous ‘12 matchup that saw Matt Barkley get a concussion late in the fourth quarter. Wide receivers also are known to have good days against the Wildcats and so are running backs, which is good news for Ronald Jones II. With Justin Davis out and Arizona susceptible to the run, this could be the week Jones II finds his stride.
Prediction: USC 34, Arizona 32
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California.