The USC Trojans are in a must win situation if they want to keep their Pac-12 South hopes alive. Right now they control their own destiny in the division, but the same could be said with their opponent this Saturday in the Arizona Wildcats. Both teams hold a 2-1 record in conference and a victory would give one the edge over the other in the south. The Trojans are coming off a narrow road loss to No. 8 Notre Dame while the Wildcats are coming off a blowout loss to No. 25 Washington at home. What will it take for the Trojans to defeat Arizona and continue to hold their fate in the Pac-12 south? Here are some keys to Saturday’s game.
Pressure and Contain Khalil Tate
USC and mobile quarterbacks have not gone well together at all this season. Jorge Reyna, Zach Wilson, even Ian Book gave the Trojans defense fits when they got out the pocket. Saturday is a much bigger challenge with Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate being brought into the fold. The Wildcats senior quarterback has been trying to show that he can propel the offense with his arm, but that has led to some a few turnovers for him.
Defensive coordinator has proven that game planning for Tate has not been an issue for him. The last three meetings saw the Arizona quarterback struggle against the Trojans defense. One advice for Pendergast here, whatever worked the first three times, keep it! Washington brought pressure on Tate last week and forced him to force critical turnovers that swung the game in the Huskies favor. USC must do the same by bringing blitzes and flustering Tate. They can’t allow the senior to beat them with his running ability and extending plays.
Not to mention that USC will most likely have three true freshmen starting at cornerback. The defensive line will generate pressure but we’ve seen them have issues contain scrambling quarterbacks. Expect Pendergast to bring pressure to try and force Tate to make some mistakes.
Contain the run game
The USC defense was gashed for 308 yards against Notre Dame. They also allowed 176 yards from Tony Jones Jr. between the tackles. Arizona brings a rushing offense that averages 209 yards per game and averages 5.4 yards per carry. Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate and running back J.J. Taylor make up a large amount of those yards, however the Wildcats have also gotten contributions from others such as running back Gary Brightwell, Darrius Smith, and Nathan Tilford. Brightwell is the Wildcats second leading rusher with 286 yards on the ground and averages 6.5 yards per carry.
USC have been BAD against the run this season. The interior run game has been decent, but after last week’s performance coupled by Khalil Tate scrambling ability, things could get dicey. The Trojans must force Arizona to beat them between the tackles which in a strange way plays into the their hands. If they allow the Wildcats to beat them going sideline to sideline then it could be a long night. Also tackling will be very helpful this game as well.
Let It Fly and Air It Out
Let’s keep it frank, Arizona’s pass defense is a tale of two things here. Their secondary rank ninth nationally in interceptions, however they also give up a ton of passing yards which ranks them 11th in the Pac-12 in yards allowed through the air at over 300 per game. Large part of that is due to Arizona lacking in the pass rushing department.
This could be the perfect antidote for Graham Harrell and his air raid offense that has underachieved through out the season. Kedon Slovis showed improvement against Notre Dame last week by making better reads and taking care of the ball. With Slovis showing improvement in his game added with the weapons at wide receiver in Amon-Ra St. Brown, Micheal Pittman Jr., Velds Jones Jr., and Tyler Vaughns. This might be a great time air it out.
Graham Harrell need to take advantage of the weapons he has at wide receiver. Let Slovis win it with his arm and take advantage of him potentially having time in the pocket to make a decision and seeing if the Arizona cornerbacks can cover the wide receivers.
Finish Drives and start fast
Part of the Trojans struggles has been the fact that they failed to finish drives or starting fast. USC can move the ball, however they’ve had issues getting into the end zone which is a problem.
Here’s some good news for USC fans. Arizona’s defense is one of the worst rated teams in red zone defense, giving up touchdowns 65 percent of the time and allowing teams to score on them 95 percent of the time. If the Trojans can get into the end zone or at least score when they get there then they should be in good shape to win the game. However, it’s easier said than done as USC’s offense doesn’t fare so well in the red zone. They’re ranked 90th nationally in red zone percentage with 78.26.
USC must also start fast and take advantage of opportunities to put the Wildcats in a hole early on. Last week the Trojans had a chance to take a good sizable lead on the Irish, however their second quarter woes and inability to generate more than three points allowed the Irish time to adjust and take control of the game. USC won’t have the luxury to get into a shootout with an Arizona team who’s offense ranks in the top ten nationally.
Win the turnover battle
USC and the turnover battle has been a very interesting yet frustrating battle. Last week USC managed to take good care of the ball, however they didn’t take the ball away from the Irish either. A baffling stat that comes to mind is that the Trojans have not won the turnover battle in 17 consecutive games. If you’re counting then that means you retraced it back to the 2018 season opener against UNLV. That was the last time USC won the turnover battle. Thats a full calendar year!
Arizona has not done a great job taking care of the ball this season. The Wildcats lost 10 turnovers. If you look closer into those lost turnovers, the Wildcats tend to commit turnovers bunches. However, they’ve also forced 12 turnovers, but a good margin of those turnovers came in Arizona’s week zero matchup with Hawaii.
Most of USC’s turnovers have come through interceptions thrown by the quarterbacks. Both Kedon Slovis and Matt Fink thrown three picks in the Trojans road losses to BYU and Washington, however Slovis managed to play a clean game against the Fighting Irish last week. The running backs on the other hand haven't been putting the ball on the ground as much this season. Stephen Carr lost a fumble against Washington three weeks ago.