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November 11, 2010

USC vs. Arizona Preview

Game 10: I'm Waitin' for the Time When I Can Get to Arizona

The Trojans head to Tucson where their best chance to beat a ranked foe in 2010 awaits. Can they get the job done?

The USC Trojans (6-3, 3-3 Pac-10) return to the road for the first time in more than a month this Saturday, November 13, to face the Arizona Wildcats (7-2, 4-2) - ranked No. 18 by the Associated Press and BCS and No. 19 by the USA Today and Harris polls - at 5 p.m. (PST) in Tucson's Arizona Stadium and in front of a regional ABC television audience. It is the 34th meeting between the two schools, with Troy holding a 26-7 edge. The Trojans have won seven of the past eight meetings, but suffered a 21-17 defeat to the Wildcats at the Coliseum in 2009. USC won the previous Tucson meeting in 2008, 17-10, and has not lost to the Cats in the desert since 1999.


A week ago, the Trojans finally saw an opponent's last-minute field goal attempt sail wide, as USC took a wild 34-33 decision over Arizona State. USC kicker Joe Houston, who had missed a pair of first-half field goal attempts, gave USC the one-point edge with a 29-yard FG with 3:06 left in a game that featured two interceptions for touchdowns, a kickoff return for a score and a defensive two-point conversion off of a blocked PAT kick. Meanwhile, Arizona was dominated by then-No. 10 Stanford, 42-17, in Palo Alto. Quarterback Nick Foles returned from a two-game absence with a dislocated kneecap, but his efforts weren't enough in a game that saw the Cardinal roll up 510 total yards on the previously stellar U of A defense.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (13-9 career collegiate head coaching record; 6-3 at USC) is in his first season at USC, after serving as the head coach at Tennessee in 2009. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Arizona headman Mike Stoops is in his seventh season in the desert (40-41, 27-31 Pac-10). After a slow start in Tucson, Stoops' Wildcats are now enjoying their third consecutive bowl season and have built the foundation of an upper-tier conference team at the dawn of the new Pac-12.

Arizona Offense
Co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Bill Bedenbaugh have put together a potent attack that averages more than 450 yards per game, including a conference-leading 294.8 passing yards per game. However, some misadventures in the red zone (three interceptions, two lost fumbles, three turnovers on downs) have kept the Wildcats from averaging more than the 31 points per game they do. The loss of Foles for a couple of games was offset nicely by the play of back-up Matt Scott, but Scott is now out with a wrist problem. That means Foles, who is still lacking some mobility in his injured knee and suffered a bruised left shoulder last week against Stanford, is going to be counted on to stay healthy this week. The excellent junior has completed 71.8 percent of his passes in 2010, with 10 touchdowns against six interceptions. Should Foles be unable to finish this week, untested junior Bryson Beirne is the backup.

The Wildcats have a deep group of receivers to fill out their array of 3-, 4- and 5-wide sets. The clear leader is junior Juron Criner, the 6'4" stud who is averaging more than 15 yards per his team-leading 58 catches. Criner, who tweaked an ankle last week at Stanford, also leads Arizona with six TD grabs. Slot receiver Dave Roberts, another junior, has 33 grabs, while classmate David Douglas has 31 (and two scores) from his outside spot. It doesn't end there, though, as junior slot man Bug Wright has 25 catches, while senior wideout Travis Cobb has 18.

Arizona's running backs are also a major factor in the Cats' passing attack. Junior Keola Antolin has become the feature back of late, thanks to an ankle injury that has sidelined senior Nic Grigsby for most of the past two games. Grigsby is questionable for Saturday. The undersized Antolin, recognizable by his flowing mane of hair sprouting from under his helmet, has carried for 529 yards, averaging 5.3 per carry, and scoring seven times. He's also caught 23 passes, two for touchdowns. Grigsby is Arizona's most complete back. He has 423 yards rushing, a 5.2 average and eight scores on the ground, while also notching 16 receptions. Bulky sophomore Greg Nwoko is the Cats' third back, but he too has a tweaked ankle.

A senior laden offensive line has been up and down for Arizona in 2010, allowing the Cats to move the ball effectively most of the time, but allowing 22 sacks. The group is led by all-conference center Colin Baxter, who has started 46 consecutive games in his Arizona career. Left tackle Adam Grant is in his NCAA-approved sixth year after missing much of two seasons earlier in his career. Fellow seniors Conan Amituanai (LG), Jovon Hayes (RG), and Phillip Garcia (RT) round out the veteran group.

Arizona Defense
Greg Brown joined Tim Kish this season as co-defensive coordinator for the Wildcats. That change, plus the loss of several key players had many people questioning how well the Arizona defense would play in 2010. But those who follow Mike Stoops' teams know that, even in the dark early days, the Wildcats bring it on defense. Arizona is in the top 20 nationally in total defense (311.7 yards per game, No. 20), scoring defense (17.4 points per game, No. 10), rush defense (102.3 yards per game, No. 10), and sacks per game (3.0 for a total 27, No. 6). While the Wildcats' pass defense has been exposed at times in 2010 (by Iowa, Oregon State, Washington State and Stanford, most noticeably), Stanford was really the first team to take it to the Cats on the ground as well.


Up front, the Wildcats' stars are senior defensive ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed. Elmore leads the Pac-10 with eight sacks among his 37 tackles, while Reed has 5.5 sacks, good for second on the team. Reed's return to prominence in 2010 was much awaited after he was plagued by injury in 2009. Classmate D'Aundre Reed has been a capable player in rotation at both ends. In the middle, senior nose tackle Lolomana Mikaele has been a key run stopper, with 22 tackles (3.5 for loss), while a pair of redshirt freshmen - Justin Washington (31 tackles, four sacks) and Sione Tuihalamaka (13 tackles) - have impressed splitting time at the other tackle spot.

Arizona lost its entire linebacking corps from 2009, but JC transfer Paul Vassallo, a junior, has helped fill the void on the weakside. Vassallo leads the team with 72 stops, including 5.5 for loss. Another JC transfer, Derek Earls, has taken over ownership of the MLB spot with 37 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. On the strong side, sophomore Jake Fischer has chipped in with 35 tackles. Sophomore R.J. Young can fill in at either outside spot and has 16 tackles so far.

The Wildcat secondary features solid cornerbacks in juniors Trevin Wade and Robert Golden. Golden has 40 stops, a pick and six pass breakups, while Wade has 30 tackles and an interception. Wade missed the Washington State game, but freshman Shaquelle Richardson filled in admirably, notching two interceptions. Senior free safety Joseph Perkins (who often switches to nickelback in five-DB sets) is Arizona's second-leading tackler with 45 and co-leads the team with two interceptions. Sophomore Adam Hall usually sees time when Perkins switches to nickel. Senior Anthony Wilcox has 37 tackles at strong safety.

Arizona Special Teams
Junior placekicker Alex Zendejas has been excellent on field goals, making 10-of-12 and showing plenty of range. He's missed three of 35 PATs however. Classmate John Bonano handles kickoffs, notching 11 touchbacks in 53 attempts. Senior punter Keenyn Crier averages 41.2 yards per boot. Wideout Miles handles punt returns, averaging more than 10 yards per chance. Receivers Wright (punts) and Cobb (kickoffs) handle return duties. Cobb has become a weapon, averaging 27.4 yards per opportunity, including a 100-yard touchdown.

USC Offensive Gameplan
USC's inconsistencies continue to hamper them offensively. Though the Trojans scored more than 30 points for the seventh consecutive time in 2010, it took a Malcolm Smith pick-six and Torin Harris' defensive two-point play to get USC there. The Trojans, via missed field goals and turnovers in the red zone, left between nine and 21 points on the field in the first half. What could have been a blowout at halftime was still a close game at 14-7. Yes, the Trojans are capable of moving the ball regularly, but mistakes in scheme and/or execution have kept USC from maximizing their offensive potential outside of the Stanford and Cal games.

Against Arizona, execution and finishing drives will be of the utmost importance, especially with the Wildcats' highly rated pass offense facing USC's lowly pass defense. In Arizona's two losses this year, the Cats were dominated in time of possession. In reverse, Arizona is one of the leading defenses in America at forcing offenses to go three-and-out. If the Trojans are winning the clock battle and avoiding three and outs, that's a good start. But USC cannot get away with leaving points on the field in a hostile environment against another capable offensive team.

The Trojans will likely come out throwing - and with Arizona's pass rush, quick hitting patterns and protecting Matt Barkley will be of utmost import. USC can make hay in the passing game against Arizona's linebacker and safety talent. Running the football will be tough against an attacking Arizona defense, but Stanford gave USC a blueprint last week to use against the Wildcats. However, with Marc Tyler nursing a sprained ankle, Dillon Baxter still learning and Allen Bradford seemingly in the doghouse for fumble issues, can the Trojans follow that blueprint?

USC Defensive Gameplan
USC's defense had yet another Jekyll-and-Hyde performance against ASU. After allowing an opening-drive touchdown based mainly on a 54-yard trick play, the Trojans allowed just 70 more total yards to the Sun Devils in the first half. However, in the second half, when USC had a pair of 15-point leads, the Trojan defense struggled to stop much of anything, allowing ASU to run up nearly 260 yards of total offense in the final two quarters (not to mention a 100-plus-yard kickoff return). There's no mistaking this defense's identity after nine games. It struggles to stop the run consistently and the pass at all. The Trojans are in a position where they, essentially, must try to outscore their opponents each and every week and hope the defense makes a stop or two along the way.

That's not to say there aren't standouts. Smith's return from injury was welcome, Chris Gallippo is a much better player than he was a season ago at this point, Shareece Wright bounced back from his poor Oregon performance with a more to-the-norm strong effort against ASU and T.J. McDonald is, simply, becoming a star. And USC's defensive line did a nice job pressuring the Arizona State quarterback for much of last Saturday night.

That pressure will be a crucial factor this Saturday. With Foles a fairly stationary target thanks to his knee issue, and the Wildcat offensive line allowing 22 sacks so far, the Trojans have no excuse to not get after Arizona with a major pass rush. Sitting back and allowing the incredibly accurate Foles to pick and choose among his array of receivers is a death sentence in this game. Expect a good upfield push from the front four, with an array of blitzes thrown at Arizona. Of course, USC can't get caught with its pants down - Antolin rushing out of a single-back formation is just the kind of runner that's given the Trojans problems in recent seasons. However, the Wildcats beat you through the air, and the Trojans must focus on disrupting that part of the Arizona attack.

The Pick
The Trojans looked lethargic at the start of last weekend's game, and though USC shook itself enough to pull out a win, the game should not nearly have been as close as it was. I guess the Trojans answered my questions in last week's preview about "when will this team not show up?" I expect a much more focused and energetic group of Trojans in Tucson this weekend. USC had been home nearly a month, the Oregon game had been much hyped and last week's crowd was less than enthusiastic - a perfect recipe, really, for a so-so performance. Getting out on the road, in front of what promises to be a loud and hostile crowd, should actually be a good thing for the team.

And the Wildcats are a beatable foe. It's clear that Oregon and Stanford are the class of the conference this season. Arizona and USC are both part of a group that's a step below. While the Wildcats carried a 7-1 mark to Stanford last weekend, Arizona's reputation was built mainly on defeating Iowa - and we all know just how impressive even the "best" Big 10 teams can be on the road. The Wildcats are a good football team, but they are not recognizably better than USC by any stretch.

Will the Trojans capitalize on an opportunity to beat a ranked team on the road? In a game that's likely to be a bit of a shootout (no big shock to anyone following USC in 2010), it will come down to which team maximizes their opportunities in the red zone. Both have struggled at times this season, but USC's defense is likely to be the salve to what ails Arizona there - and that's the difference in this one.

Arizona 34, USC 30

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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