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October 24, 2008
Game 7: A Sand Trap?
The Trojans hope this visit to Tucson doesn't put a tombstone on their championship dreams, as a hungry Arizona team looks to make its mark in the Pac-10 race.
The USC Trojans (5-1, 3-1 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 4 in the USA Today coaches' poll, No. 5 in the BCS rankings, and No. 6 by the Associated Press (AP), continue their 2008 Pac-10 road schedule Saturday, October 25, against the Arizona Wildcats (5-2, 3-1) at 7:15 p.m. (PDT) at Tucson's sold-out Arizona Stadium, and in front of a national Fox Sports Net cable TV audience. It is the 32nd meeting between the Trojans and Wildcats, with USC holding a 25-6 edge. A season ago, the Trojans handed Arizona a tough 20-13 defeat at the Coliseum in Mark Sanchez's first start at USC, notching their sixth consecutive victory over the Wildcats. In the previous meeting in Tucson in 2006, USC throttled the Arizona offense in a 20-3 victory.
A week ago, the Trojans extended their shutout streak to 10 consecutive quarters - and notched the university's first consecutive shutouts in 37 years - walloping a helpless Washington State team, 69-0, in Pullman, Wash. The Trojan offense was efficient early, scoring six first-half touchdowns and actually passing an easy opportunity at a seventh by running the final 40 seconds off the second-quarter clock with the ball inside the WSU 10-yard line. USC got plenty of reserves playing time on the Palouse, though the Trojans' three reserve quarterbacks combined to throw just one pass in the second half. Meanwhile, the Wildcats stunned the California Golden Bears with a dominating 28-3 run in the second half that led to a 42-27 victory in Tucson - a great bounce-back victory for Arizona after their shocking, last-second defeat at Stanford a week before.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his eighth season at USC (81-15, 52-10 in the Pac-10) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Arizona headman Mike Stoops (22-31, 15-23 Pac-10) entered his fifth season in Tucson on the hot seat, as the Wildcats have not gone bowling during his tenure. However, an experienced offense, led by senior quarterback Willie Tuitama, is averaging more than 40 points and 411 yards per game, while a green defense has performed better than expected - allowing Arizona fans to look at this match-up of two of the four teams tied for the conference lead with some high hopes.
Once again, the Trojan defense will line up across against another version of the three-receiver, single-back attack that has become the preferred mode of attack for many Pac-10 teams. However, Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes' group is the most experienced and talented of the five Pac-10 offenses USC has faced thus far. For the Wildcats, whose total offense ranks fifth in the Pac-10 and 32nd nationally (but ranks second in the conference - ninth nationally - in scoring), it all begins with Tuitama. The big, strong pocket passer has overcome a spate of injuries early in his career to establish himself at the top of nearly every passing ranking in Arizona football history. And, in 2008, his accuracy and decision making have leapt to another level, proven out by his 65-percent completion rate and 15-3 TD-to-interception ratio. Tuitama is the most complete and experienced signal-caller the Trojans have faced in 2008.
Tuitama's main target throughout his Wildcat career has been speedy senior Mike Thomas. As the Pac-10's leading receiver, Thomas' 42 catches out of his preferred slot position include four touchdowns. But, unlike recent seasons, Thomas isn't the only reliable target for Tuitama. Six-foot-four sophomore Delashaun Dean has become a key possession target, with 30 grabs, while junior Terrell Turner has added 28 catches. At tight end, Rob Gronkowski has been a revelation with six of his 16 catches going for scores. The 6'6", 260-lb. sophomore is also a solid blocker. The experienced depth behind this group is limited, and Arizona has thrown to its backs only rarely.
Arizona's rushing attack has struggled in recent seasons - no more than against the Trojans. In the past three meetings, the 'Cats have rushed 58 times for a grand total of 70 yards against USC. However, Arizona has improved in 2008, averaging a more respectable 158 yards per game. Sophomore Nicolas Grigsby has been most responsible for the improvement, gaining 627 yards, scoring nine TDs, and averaging almost six yards per carry. However, he's had some major issues with fumbling. A week ago against Cal, Grigsby carried for 13 yards on his first carry, but fumbled the ball away. He didn't see another carry the entire evening, while pint-sized true freshman Keola Antolin shocked the Bears with a 21-carry, 149-yard, 3-TD performance reminiscent of Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers' game against USC a month ago. While Grigsby remains atop the depth chart nominally, don't be surprised to see the Trojans get a healthy dose of Antolin on Saturday night.
Up front, Arizona's offensive line has come together well in the wake of losing two-year starting center Blake Kerley in the UCLA game on Sept. 20. Sophomore Colin Baxter, who started the Wildcats' first four games at left guard, slid over to center, and junior JC-transfer Mike Diaz, a bulky 340-pounder, stepped in at LG. Junior left tackle Eben Britton is the Wildcats top lineman. On the right side, senior John Longacre is entrenched at guard, while senior James Tretheway and junior Adam Grant have split time at tackle. The Arizona front five has been a major part of the Wildcats' more consistent rushing effort and have done well to keep the sometimes statue-like Tuitama from getting sacked more than 16 times.
Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, the Wildcats had to replace eight starters in 2008, including all-everything cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot. To say they've done well would be an understatement. While USC's defense has been stellar, leading the conference in nearly every category, the Arizona defense is right behind them - ranking No. 2 in the conference in pass, pass efficiency, total and scoring defense. The 'Cats have been middle-of-the-road against the run (allowing 133 yards per game, sixth in the conference) and haven't recorded many sacks (11) or tackles for loss (37), but have improved greatly in one area - getting off the field on third down. A year ago, Arizona allowed opponents to convert 43 percent of third-down situations. In 2008, that number is down to just 30 percent.
The Arizona youth movement begins up front, where three sophomores start on the front four. The leader thus far has been defensive end Brooks Reed, who has 20 tackles, including a team-leading three sacks. At the other end, sophomores Ricky Elmore and D'Aundre Reed have shared the spot, with Elmore starting six of seven. The pair has combined for 31 tackles and three sacks. In the middle, undersized juniors Earl Mitchell (21 stops) and Donald Horton (11 tackles) hold down one tackle spot. Sophomore Kaniela Tuipulotu handles the other tackle position almost exclusively.
There is a little more experience at linebacker, where senior Adrian McCovy and JC transfer junior Sterling Lewis flank senior middleman Ronnie Palmer. Lewis has been stellar for the Stoops brothers so far, leading the team with 48 tackles. He's also notched four tackles for loss. Palmer has 40 stops, including five for loss and two sacks. McCovy, who comes off the field in nickel situations, has 27 tackles. Juniors Vuna Tuihalamaka and Xavier Kelley have provided dependable depth.
In the secondary, Mike Stoops recently credited his experienced safeties, senior Nate Ness and junior Cam Nelson, with holding the secondary together while his less experienced cornerbacks learned the ropes of playing in the Pac-10. Ness has 42 tackles and two interceptions from his free safety spot, while strong safety Nelson has 33 stops. Junior cornerback Devin Ross has become a household name in taking over for former All-America Cason. He has 19 tackles, nine pass break-ups and two picks, while morphing into a shutdown corner. Across the field, senior Marquis Hundley has 31 stops and has been solid. Junior Corey Hall sees a lot of time in nickel situations.
Arizona Special Teams
The Wildcats' special teams feature some star players. Senior placekicker Jason Bondzio is eight-of-nine on field goals, with a long of 49. He's also nailed 15 touchbacks in 51 kickoff tries and all 33 PATs he's attempted. Sophomore Keenyn Crier is the conference's best punter, once again, and he's averaging nearly 44 yards per boot. The Wildcats rank second in the conference in net punting. Thomas is the Pac-10's biggest threat on punt returns. He's averaging 15 yards per, and has scored a touchdown this season. The kick return unit is a little less frightening, ranking eighth in the conference, but Antolin has shown some spark, including one 41-yard return.
USC Offensive Gameplan
What did last week's bounce-back performance against Washington State tell us about the Trojan offense? Aside from the fact that USC looked amazing against what may be the worst Pac-10 team ever, it did show a nice focus and an ability to step up to the moment after earlier struggles against Oregon State and Arizona State. The fact that USC didn't turn the ball over, committed just two penalties and had three players rush for 100 yards each (for the first time in a single game since 1977) was promising. Mark Sanchez's five first-half touchdowns were much needed after his four-turnover performance a week earlier. And the offensive play calling created a nice pass-run mix in the first half, when the game was still "in doubt."
However, this Saturday, the Trojans will face a much stiffer test in the desert against a young-but-coming Arizona defense. The Wildcats have been particularly strong against the pass, playing an aggressive zone defense that limits downfield opportunities and forces inefficiency. Even Cal, which threw for 315 yards against the Wildcats last week (by far the most passing yards allowed by Arizona this season), struggled, completing just 24-of-56 passes and throwing two interceptions, one of which was returned for a score by Ross. For USC to have consistent success, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will have to mix up looks and Sanchez will have to find his second and third options more often in this game than any other so far.
On the other hand, offensive line coach Pat Ruel must have his group licking its chops when looking at the smallish Arizona front four. While Arizona's overall rush defense stats look okay at first glance, a deeper look shows that New Mexico rushed for 221 yards (at a 4.7 per carry clip) and Stanford for 286 (at nearly 6 yards per carry) in the Wildcats' two losses. Neither New Mexico nor Stanford offers the passing threat that USC does. Just last week, Cal rushed for nearly 4.8 yards per carry against the Wildcats, and even UCLA's troubled offense was able to run for 115 yards against Arizona. I expect to see the Trojans lean heavily on their front five in this game and try to alternately pound the Wildcats on the ground while patiently loosening up their pass defense with a mix of underneath routes.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Since allowing 21 first-half points to Oregon State on Sept. 25, the USC defense has allowed a grand total of 16 points in the past 14 quarters - and six of those came on a two-yard drive following an interception. USC has not allowed a point since an Oregon field goal early in the second quarter on Oct. 4, holding Arizona State scoreless even though the Trojan offense committed five turnovers, and never allowing Washington State to cross the 50-yard line. Last weekend, a number of reserves got some great in-game experience in the second half, which can only improved the Trojan defense's outlook heading into the second half of the season - a time where injuries often become a bigger factor.
But, once again, this game against the Wildcats will provide the Trojan defense with perhaps its stiffest test of the season. The Arizona offense is experienced, has good skill-position talent and - with a more respectable rushing attack in 2008 - can hurt opponents in a number of ways. Up until a week ago, though, you'd definitely say that Arizona's weakest link was still its rushing attack. In their two losses, the Wildcats averaged just 72 yards rushing. However, Antolin really energized the Arizona attack last weekend, and I imagine the Wildcats will try to utilize him in much the same way Oregon State utilized Jacquizz Rodgers against Troy a month ago.
In recent seasons, USC has handled the Arizona offense utilizing its speed and ability to consistently play assignment football to frustrate the Wildcats' pass-heavy offense. The Trojan linebackers must maintain that discipline against Arizona's resuscitated rushing attack. While you can't expect the Trojans to hold the 'Cats to 23 yards or 1.2 yards per carry as they have, on average, the past three seasons, they must take away the threat created last weekend. In turn, pressuring Tuitama - something USC has done very well during his career - is crucial. Tuitama is a smarter, more patient field general than he has been in past years. Rattling his cage early and forcing him into risky throws would be a major positive for the Trojan defense.
Arizona's fans are about as ready for this Homecoming game as any game in Tucson in the past decade. Times have been lean for Wildcat football in the past decade, so a first-place showdown with USC in late October is about as good as it has been. The sold-out crowd will be at fever pitch on Saturday night, as will a Wildcat team coming off one of its most impressive wins in the Stoops Era.
When you add to that the fact that Arizona has won its past three Homecoming games - two against top-10 opponents - and four of its past five games against ranked foes in Tucson, a sense of intangible confidence will be on the Wildcats' side. What favors USC? Talent and coaching.
This will be a tough football game early on (and for longer if USC doesn't come to play). The Wildcats believe they can be the latest giant-slayer to take down the Trojans. USC must arrive focused and ready to hit from the opening kickoff, otherwise the Trojans will find themselves facing a deficit similar to the one in Corvallis. If USC comes to play - and hasn't that lesson apparently been learned, especially on defense - the emotion sure to rile up Arizona Stadium early will eventually dissipate. USC's rushing attack will wear down the Wildcats in the second half, opening up the skies for a pair of Sanchez touchdown passes to put the game away.
USC 35, Arizona 17
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight 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 [email protected]