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Arizona at USC: Key players to watch

USC came off of its bye week with a a loss to Notre Dame that appears both promising and dissapointing. USC did what it needed to do, didn’t turn the ball over, got itself into third and short situations, and made more plays on the defensive side of the ball. Still, careless mistakes, discipline, and some questionable offensive play calling doomed the Trojans against a top-10 Notre Dame team. Will these Trojans bounce back with a win? Here are three players who will play a role in deciding what happens on Saturday.

USC v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Arizona’s coming into town against a 3-3 USC team. There are a couple of ways to spin this. A Clay Helton apologist may mention that USC’s record in Sam Darnold’s first year was also 3-3 through six games, and that those Trojans ended the season with a Rose Bowl. A more cynical fan may note that USC does have a good chance at winning the Pac-12 South, but a victory over a Washington or Oregon in a Pac-12 championship seems more fantasy than reality.

But in order to get there, USC must beat Arizona first. Here are three players who will play a role in deciding this game:

Khalil Tate

Khalil Tate first burst onto the scene two years ago in what seems like an eternity to college football fans. His late run for the Heisman was incredible, but football is a “what have you done for me lately” business. Tate’s dominance has faded from the national football conscience as injuries and a poorly designed Kevin Sumlin offense hampered his explosiveness. He ended up throwing for only 2,530 yards and leading Arizona to a disappointing 5-7 record.

But this year, he’s improved in all categories. He may not be as electric as the tail end of his 2017 campaign, but his 64.8 percent completion percentage, 8.8 average yards per pass, and 153 passer rating are the best he’s posted in his career.

But Khalil Tate has also made costly plays like this.

And this reflects in the stats as well. Having thrown six interceptions in six games, Tate is headed toward a career high in interceptions. And his 10 touchdowns through six games is on pace to fall short of his production last season. Honestly, those are JT Daniels numbers. Tate has also regressed in his running, having only run for 233 yards on the season. Though he is still dangerous on the ground, it is obvious that either he or Kevin Sumlin wants him to be more of a pocket passer. So far, that has not worked out.

Still, Tate has the skill set to make USC miserable. USC has utterly failed to contain mobile quarterbacks this season. Tate may be able to take advantage and gash the Trojans there.

Grant Gunnell

I know what the reaction is here. How can Arizona’s two players to watch both be quarterbacks? Well, many in Arizona believe that Tate is on the verge of losing his job to true freshman Grant Gunnnell. Gunnell is a 6’ 6” pro style quarterback. If Sumlin is dedicated to running a pass-heavy, pro-style offense, Gunnell will supplant Tate as Arizona’s starting quarterback.

This season, Gunnell has already started in place of Tate because of injury against UCLA. Gunnell lead Arizona to a narrow win, Gunnell has also played significant snaps after Tate has made costly mistakes at the ends of games. Gunnell has completed 41 of 63 passes this season for 528 yards and four touchdowns. On their face, these statistics mirror Tate’s. Tate has a 64.8 completion percentage to Gunnell’s 65.1. Tate averages 8.8 yards per pass to Gunnell’s 8.4 But Gunnell has four touchdowns and no interceptions. He much better fits the mold of what to expect for a pocket quarterback.

Gunnell has gotten so much traction, USC has defensive game plans for both quarterbacks. One for the scrambling Tate, and one for the pocket passing Gunnell.

Unfortunately for the Trojans, it seems as though both should be able to take advantage of USC’s weaknesses. USC can not stop mobile quarterbacks, and a bevy of injuries in the secondary will make it difficult for USC to stop a pocket passing game.

Markese Stepp

In hindsight, Vavae Malepeai’s knee surgery should not have been a surprise. After dominant performances in the opener and against Stanford, Malepeai has failed to do much against BYU, Utah, Washington, and Notre Dame. Nobody could tell what had changed until we learned that Malepeai needed to have his knee cleaned up.

Malepeai’s absence will open the door for Markese Stepp, who many Trojan fans have been clammoring for since his dominant few rushes to spell the end of the Stanford game.

This is the type of beastquake run that USC needs, the type of run that engenders toughness for the entire team.

Stepp has shown the ability to run straight ahead with his powerful frame all season. But what has held him back has been poor form leading to concerns about ball security and pass protection. Of course, these are just the coaching staff’s excuses. It will be exciting to see the Trojans forced to put the ball in Stepp’s hands. Without Vavae, Stepp is USC’s only between the tackles runningback. Look for Stepp to get his season high in carries. If Stepp performs as his believers think he will, USC’s running game will control the tempo of the game.