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USC vs Arizona: Player Match-ups to Watch

USC opens Pac-12 South play with a pivotal match up in Tucson. As a slight favorite, USC will need to win these match ups to win the game.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

LB Cameron Smith vs. QB Khalil Tate

Last season, Arizona Wildcats QB Khalil Tate took the PAC-12 and college football by storm. After October, Tate lead an Arizona offense that was held under 30 points just once. Over that stretch of nine games, Tate rushed for 1,325 yards, which was a stunning 147 yards per game. During that stretch, however, Arizona’s offense was far from Army’s rush only offense.

In that same stretch, Tate completed 106 of the 170 passes he attempted. resulting in a completion percentage of 62.3 percent over that stretch. With such a late season push, Tate brought Arizona football into the college football spotlight, and threatened for the Heisman late in the year.

This year, Tate was expected to go off.

Ever since Tate proclaimed that he wouldn’t be running a triple option, however, he’s been rushing far fewer times. Last season, Tate averaged more than ten rushes a game. This season under new Head Coach Kevin Sumlin, he’s averaging just over four.

Still, Tate has the ability to take over any game through his deadly combination of rushing and passing. Over this young season, Tate hasn’t rushed too often, but his sheer game-breaking ability is something that USC must scheme for.

The player tasked with limiting Tate will be senior linebacker and captain Cameron Smith. Smith has always been a tackling machine and has been adept at stopping the run, but this past season, he’s focused on sideline-to-sideline mobility and defending the pass as well as the run. His ability has been highlighted through his key pass breakups against UNLV.

Against Tate, his increased mobility should help his ability as a spy and in containing Tate when he ever leaves the pocket.

For USC to win, they must allow fewer broken plays to break for long gains. Smith will have the unenviable task of limiting Tate in this regard.

J.J. Taylor vs. Christian Rector

J.J. Taylor is coming off of a game in which he amassed 284 yards on 27 carries, and took home the PAC-12 offensive player of the week. Against Oregon State, J.J. Taylor constantly ran between the tackles, totaling two touchdowns on the day. Stopping him will require effort from the whole defensive line, but Christian Rector is one player who really needs to step up.

In 12 games last season, Rector had 11 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Just last season, he was an All-PAC-12 second team-er, and even made the 2017 AP Midseason All-American second team. Through four games this season, Rector has zero tackles for loss and zero sacks. He’s failed to make a consistent impact around the ball, and has been invisible both rushing the passer and stopping the run. If USC plans on making a run at the PAC-12 South, and the PAC-12 as a whole, its defensive line must step up against Taylor and Arizona’s rushing attack. That effort must start with Rector.

Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns vs. Lorenzo Burns and Jace Whittaker

For some reason or another, Michael Pittman and JT Daniels haven’t jelled as much as expected. Going into the season, we all knew Daniels had a special relationship with Amon-Ra. A third of the way into it, Daniels has developed a rapport with Vaughns, but not Pittman.

Thing is, it’s looking more and more like Vaughns and St. Brown are the team’s most talented receivers, with Pittman as a distant third. It seems as though St. Brown and Vaughns jockey to be the best receiver on the team every game, with Pittman as more of an afterthought.

St. Brown and Vaughns will match up with Lorenzo Burns and Jace Whittaker, respectively. Burns tends to play the receiver on the near sideline, with Whittaker taking the receiver at the far sideline. Last season, Lorenzo burns snagged five interceptions, the PAC-12 lead. Whittaker, on the other hand, lead the Wildcats with 13 pass breakups and had three interceptions of his own. The talented duo may not garner much national attention, but they are certainly quality pieces who will challenge St. Brown and Vaughns.

HC Clay Helton vs. HC Kevin Sumlin

No, this isn’t a player match-up.

Still, it’s a match-up that may affect the future of both coaches. Coming into Tucson, Kevin Sumlin was expected to bring the Khalil-Tate lead Wildcats to instant success. Instead, the Wildcats floundered, starting the season 0-2. Khalil Tate’s once dynamic run-option offense has seemingly been neutralized, and many even believed Sumlin was on the hot seat.

Though this is Clay Helton’s third straight year at USC, questions have emerged about Helton’s job at USC. With player discipline, practice engagement, play-calling, and porous offensive line play in question, Helton has a short leash.

USC has had problems this season with gap discipline and before-the-snap penalties, among many others. Arizona has had problems reviving last year’s dynamic offense. Though they won’t play on the field, the adjustments that Clay Helton and Kevin Sumlin make, or fail to make, will ultimately play a large role shaping the outcome of this game.