Today, USC takes on Arizona in a battle of Pac-12 South opponents. The Trojans are only 3-3 with two losses in conference, but a win in Tuscon would lengthen SC’s winning streak to three games. Arizona, on the other hand, is struggling at 2-4, including an 0-3 conference record. The Wildcats have been decimated by injuries and a huge victory against the Trojans could be vital in getting the team back on track. That being said, here are three key players for USC that could play a key role in preventing ‘Zona from earning the school’s first conference win.
ILB Cameron Smith
The star linebacker is almost always a key player if USC hopes to pull out a victory, but this week his importance to the defense is even more important than usual. Arizona loves to run the football with their quarterbacks and Smith will be pivotal in hoping to keep them at bay. Both of the Wildcats’ two top quarterbacks, Anu Solomon and Brandon Dawkins, are likely out with injury leaving freshman Khalil Tate as the likely starter. Tate, a recruit that was heavily recruited by the Trojans at one point out of Serra High School, is a run-first quarterback that will look to use his feet rather than his arm in most situations. As a result, Smith will play a big part in not only stopping Arizona’s designed quarterback runs, but also playing as a “spy” on passing downs. USC needs to force Tate to beat them with his arm, and if Smith can prevent Tate from ripping off large chunks of yardage on scrambles, Arizona is going to have serious issues offensively.
RB Ronald Jones II
Coming into the season, many expected Ronald Jones to be a complement rather than a backup to starter Justin Davis. Unfortunately, Davis has established himself as the Trojans’ every down back thanks to his abilities in the receiving game. Against Arizona, however, Davis will almost certainly not be on the field due to a high ankle sprain suffered against Colorado. This shifts the onus to Jones as the team’s bell-cow back.
This is an unfamiliar position for Jones to be in as the true sophomore has not carried the ball more than eleven times in 2016. Aca’Cedric Ware will likely be relied upon to spell Jones in certain situations, but there is little doubt that the Trojans will need Jones to be an effective three down back against the Wildcats. Arizona has surrendered 226.8 yards per game on the ground this season giving Jones an excellent opportunity for a breakout game. Particularly in a hostile environment with a hungry team looking to get their season back on track, establishing a solid running game will be key for the Trojans. Jones will need to play a key part in taking advantage of Arizona’s porous run defense that could be pivotal in sealing a victory in Tucson.
OLB Porter Gustin
Along with Jones, Porter Gustin has also been a little bit underwhelming in 2016 after a stellar freshman season. The true sophomore only has two sacks in six games, but facing a freshman quarterback with very limited experience could be a great opportunity to improve that number. Plus, Tate’s running ability will force Gustin to play smart, assignment football when coming off the edge. Gustin needs to make sure he does not over pursue the quarterback, otherwise he will open up huge running lanes for Tate to exploit. Rushing a running quarterback is not always easy, but if Gustin can stay in his lanes and keep Tate in the pocket, the Trojans could have a field day in the Arizona backfield.
With Arizona reeling after a third straight conference loss, the Trojans need to make sure not to let the Wildcats spring the upset. After a rough start to the season, USC is finally beginning to pick up some momentum. A defeat in Tuscon would be absolutely devastating for SC as it would virtually end all chances of a Pac-12 South Championship, and it could also place Clay Helton firmly on the hot seat for the rest of 2016. The Trojans have been playing much better of late and a strong performance against Arizona would be a great way to head in to the bye week.