Breaking down the on-field matchups for USC (3-3, 2-1) and Arizona (4-2, 2-1) for the game Saturday at the Coliseum at 6:30 p.m. (TV: Pac-12 Networks, Radio: 790)
USC defensive front vs. Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate. There may not be a more dangerous player remaining on USC’s schedule this season. Tate has always been a threat to run, but in his third season as Arizona’s quarterback, he and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone finally seem on the same page in the passing game, too. The Wildcats are 17th in the nation and second in the Pac-12 in passing offense. But it’s his scrambling that should still concern USC most. Running quarterbacks have had their way with the Trojans this season, and Tate is perhaps the best of them all.
USC (428.8 ypg, 29 ppg): Leading rusher Vavae Malepeai is out for the foreseeable future, but USC’s run game should have no problem adjusting, considering how well redshirt freshman Markese Stepp has run the ball over the last two weeks. Stepp should take on a leading role in this game, as USC tries to control the ball against a subpar front seven that will likely drop eight into coverage. If a combination of Stepp and Stephen Carr can’t establish a rhythm, it’ll be up to quarterback Kedon Slovis, who hasn’t played in the Coliseum since suffering a concussion against Utah. Slovis had a strong second half against a stifling Notre Dame secondary, and this week, he should be able to build on that momentum against defense that allows 327 pass yards per game, third-worst in the nation.
Arizona (509.3 ypg, 35.5 ppg): Over the first half of this season, Arizona’s offense looked just as explosive as it did when Tate first burst onto the scene two years ago. Only eight other Football Bowl Subdivision teams are putting up more yards per game. Tate is a huge part of that again as a senior, as he’s averaging more passing yards per game (254) than at any point in his career. But it’s the run game that still powers the offense, and it’s not only Tate who has stood out. J.J. Taylor (5.57), Gary Brightwell (6.5) and Derrius Smith (7.4) are all averaging more than 5.5 yards per carry, putting each in the top 12 of the conference in that regard.
USC (421.7 ypg, 25.7 ppg): Coach Clay Helton has blamed USC’s issues on the ground largely on explosive run plays. Those problems aren’t going away this week against the Pac-12’s second-best rushing offense. USC gave up 308 yards on the ground last week and has allowed at least 193 rushing yards in three straight games. The absence of linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV (ankle) only worsens matters. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast might opt for a less aggressive approach to help slow the run game. But with three starting cornerbacks set to miss the game, pressuring the quarterback is also crucial.
Arizona (473.2 ypg, 33 ppg): Arizona’s defense has allowed at least 400 yards in every game this season, and that includes to Northern Arizona, an FCS team that scored 41 points in their meeting. The Wildcats have managed to slow some opposing rushing attacks, but they haven’t been so lucky through the air. USC won’t hesitate to attack that secondary, which means more nickel and dime packages throughout. That’ll put pressure on an Arizona line that has struggled to get much push up front. The Wildcats have just five sacks in six games, and only sophomore linebacker Jalen Harris has more than one.
Through half of the season, USC’s Chase McGrath remains perfect on his kicks, with six made field goals and 22 extra points. Just twice in the last 10 years — both by Andre Heidari — has a USC kicker finished a season better than 80% on field-goal attempts.
USC’s recent track record against Arizona is about as sparkling as it gets. The Trojans have won each of their last six games, eight of their last nine, and 15 of their last 17 against the Wildcats. That said, nearly half of their meetings all-time have been decided by eight points or fewer.
USC will be without two starting cornerbacks and possibly a third. Olaijah Griffin (back) and nickel corner Greg Johnson (shoulder) will miss the game, while redshirt freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart (ankle) is a game-time decision. ... Gaoteote was ruled out with a high ankle sprain. Kana’i Mauga will start in his place.