USC (2-2, 1-1) at Arizona (2-2, 1-0), Arizona Stadium. TV: ESPN2. Radio: 710.
USC inside linebacker Cameron Smith vs. Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate: If there’s one thing the USC defense should be able to count on, it’s sound linebacker play, particularly in the middle with Smith, the senior captain. Smith entered this season as a first-team All-American candidate, and a matchup with Tate, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, will provide him a prime opportunity to show what he can do. Thus far, Arizona has not been employing Tate in the running game, and it’s anybody’s guess whether that is a schematic change or because of his ankle injury. Smith’s challenge will be to still respect Tate’s running ability in the read-option game with running back J.J. Taylor even when Tate hasn’t chosen to keep the ball much this season. Smith will also have to keep an eye on Tate when the pocket breaks down. The Trojans have given opposing quarterbacks plenty of running lanes this season, which hurt them against Nevada Las Vegas and Texas. Smith had 15 tackles last week against Washington State and will have the chance to approach that number again Saturday.
USC (376 ypg/24.8 ppg): USC’s offense took a huge step forward against Washington State, but the group will have to perform way better than it did in its first two road games this season for the Trojans to win. The offensive line needs to show that it can communicate in a loud environment and give the running game a chance to thrive and open the field up for JT Daniels in the passing game. If there’s one thing Daniels has shown, it’s a willingness to take deep shots, and that becomes much easier when the run game is functional.
Arizona (519.3 ypg/34.5 ppg): Coming off a 284-yard performance at Oregon State, Taylor leads the Pac-12 in rushing with 477 yards and will become even tougher to stop if Arizona allows Tate to unleash his play-making ability. The Wildcats have three capable receivers in Shun Brown, Tony Ellison and Shawn Poindexter.
USC (394 ypg/27.8 ppg): The Trojans have excelled in getting opponents into third and long but have struggled to get off the field in those situations the last two games. USC has created only two turnovers in four games and will be focused on trying to make a few game-changing plays to help the offense with field position.
Arizona (411 ypg/29.5 ppg): The Wildcats are vulnerable to giving up big plays, which plays right into what USC does well offensively. USC coach Clay Helton noticed that Arizona changed to more fronts with four down linemen the last two weeks, which he thinks fits its personality better.
USC defensive tackle Jay Tufele was named Pac-12 special teams player of the week after blocking Washington State’s game-tying field-goal attempt to secure the Trojans’ 39-36 victory.
For a significant number of plays Saturday, USC will have two true freshmen in the defensive backfield — starting strong safety Talanoa Hufanga and backup cornerback Olaijah Griffin.
Entering this game, USC appears to be as healthy as it’s been all season. The Trojans should get running back Aca’Cedric Ware (knee pain) back to full strength after he was limited last week.