USC vs. Arizona: How the Trojans and Wildcats match up

Tyler Petite, Darreus Rogers
USC tight end Tyler Petite (82) is congratulated by wide receiver Darreus Rogers (1) after scoring the go-ahead touchdown against Colorado in the fourth quarter at the Coliseum on Oct. 8.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

USC (3-3, 2-2 in the Pac-12) vs. Arizona (2-4, 0-3), at Arizona Stadium, Tucson. TV: Fox, 12:30 p.m.

Times staff writer Zach Helfand analyzes Saturday’s game:

Most intriguing storyline: USC has a travel problem. Since Clay Helton became USC’s full-time coach, the Trojans have a record of 3-0 at the Coliseum but are 0-5 on the road. (USC is 2-7 away from home in games dating back to when Helton was interim coach last season.) This season, the road problems have been wide-ranging. Against Utah, it was turnovers. Before that, against Stanford, it was penalties. In the season opener in Texas against Alabama, it was, well, everything. Helton said he would address mental toughness and discipline before the team travels to Arizona. “You bring your run game, you stop the run, you play great special teams and you don’t turn it over,” Helton said. “That usually equals a road win. We need one. This is a big game for us. A huge game for us.”

USC pass offense vs. Arizona pass defense: After three starts, Sam Darnold owns a 165.2 passer rating, highest among freshmen and eighth-best among all major-college quarterbacks. He is passing for an average of 321 yards and accounting for almost three touchdowns per game. Part of his success has been his ability to get the ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose average receiving yards per game has jumped 78 yards since Darnold took over. Darnold has also been able to avoid pressure. He’s been sacked just twice in two games. The Wildcats like to bring pressure, but the results have been mixed. They have 13 sacks, a mediocre total, but linebacker Deandre’ Miller, who has three, can be disruptive. EDGE: USC.


USC run offense vs. Arizona run defense: With Justin Davis, USC had finally sparked its run game. Davis was shredding defenses until he sustained a sprained ankle against Colorado. Ronald Jones II is a more-than-capable backup — he led the team in rushing last season as a freshman — but he’s been inconsistent this year. His season high is just 63 yards in 11 carries against Stanford. Jones said he developed a rhythm in the second half against Colorado because he was given more carries. He’ll face a forgiving opponent: Arizona is 89th (out of 128 teams) nationally in run defense and has allowed three rushing touchdowns in each of the last four games.  EDGE: USC.

Arizona pass offense vs. USC pass defense: Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez hasn’t revealed his starting quarterback. Anu Solomon, the usual starter, is out with a knee injury. Brandon Dawkins, the backup, is listed as questionable with a concussion. That makes Khalil Tate, a freshman from Garden Serra High, the likely starter. Tate has completed 10 of 17 passes for three touchdowns, with one interception. His running ability fits well with Arizona’s run-pass option game, freeing up receivers Shun Brown (352 yards, three touchdowns) and Trey Griffey (306 yards, one touchdown). USC ranks sixth in the Pac-12 in pass defense, but it’s a tough assignment for a freshman.  EDGE: USC.

Arizona run offense vs. USC run defense: Nick Wilson ran for 138 yards against Brigham Young in the season opener and 116 yards against Grambling State the week after. Since then, an ankle injury has limited him to eight carries. He didn’t play at all last week, but his status for Saturday has been upgraded to probable. Even with Wilson hobbled, Arizona ranks 18th in the nation in yards per rush, thanks largely to its trio of mobile quarterbacks. Tate, Helton said, “is almost like a running back back there, who can throw.” The Wildcats will be tested by an improving run defense. Neither Arizona State nor Colorado could manage 100 yards rushing against USC — season lows for each at the time.  EDGE: USC.

Special teams: Each week it gets more difficult to fathom that opponents continue to give Adoree’ Jackson opportunities on punt and kickoff returns. Last week, he had a 47-yard punt return and a 38-yard kickoff return — both at big points in the game. Josh Pollack handles punts and place-kicking duties for Arizona. He has made six of eight field goals; both misses came from more than 50 yards out.  EDGE: USC.


Zach Helfand’s pick: Road game or not, USC has too much talent for hobbled Arizona. The Trojans shouldn’t have much trouble climbing above .500 for the first time this season. USC 35, Arizona 21.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand