USC vs. Arizona: Five things to watch for on Saturday

USC coach Donte Williams watches during the Trojans' loss against Notre Dame on Oct. 23.
USC coach Donte Williams watches during the Trojans’ loss against Notre Dame on Oct. 23. The Trojans are big favorites to win their homecoming game Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

The last time Arizona won a college football game was more than two years ago. It was early October 2019, and the Wildcats had emerged from a Rocky Mountain road trip on an impressive four-game win streak. Everything was starting to look up for Kevin Sumlin, who’d won only five total games in his first season.

Instead, it all came unraveled. Sumlin was fired. Jedd Fisch was hired. And in between, losing was the only constant. As USC prepares to face Arizona in a 4 p.m. matchup Saturday, the Wildcats have lost 19 straight, taking up permanent residence in the Pac-12 cellar. They are, by quite a margin, the worst team in the conference.

Which is to say they couldn’t have come to the Coliseum at a better time for USC, which returns home with its season in a death spiral. The Trojans have lost three of four, and hope is dwindling. With five weeks remaining in the regular season, USC needs to win the majority of its games just to be bowl eligible.


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Scoring that invite would be next-to-impossible without a win over Arizona on Saturday. The Trojans are 21-point favorites, a mark they won’t come anywhere near reaching the rest of this season. In its last four games, Arizona has been outscored in the fourth quarter 48-0. USC, this season, has outscored opponents 88-13 in the final quarter.

All signs point to a bounce-back. But USC is in no place to overlook anyone at this point in its season.

“The 19-game losing streak doesn’t mean anything to us,” USC interim coach Donte Williams said. “Every game is different. Every game is different to the person you’re playing against as an individual. At the same time, they have a new staff. I’m sure they’re not worried about what’s happened last year or the year before. They’re worried about what’s happening right now.”


Emphasize the run

USC running back Keaontay Ingram sprints past Colorado safety Isaiah Lewis.
USC running back Keaontay Ingram sprints past Colorado safety Isaiah Lewis during the second half of the Trojans’ win on Oct. 2.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)


After years of grating against the notion the Air Raid deemphasizes the run, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell finally seemed to lean into his ground game against Notre Dame. Behind a resurgent Keaontay Ingram, who rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown, Harrell used the run to establish the pass and grind down the Irish defense in the second half.

Had Harrell opted for that strategy sooner, it might’ve been a different game against Notre Dame. But this week, it seemed to register among USC’s staff that further emphasizing the run might be the best method for stabilizing the Trojans’ season.

Donte Williams was on board with that approach, noting Sunday that USC was “at our best when we do that.” Running backs coach Mike Jinks added that it was “something that’s been discussed.”

It doesn’t hurt that Ingram is finally healthy. Coaches raved this week about how well he ran against Notre Dame. Expect more of the same against Arizona.

“The more reps he’s getting, the better he gets,” offensive line coach and run game coordinator Clay McGuire said.



Red zone regrets

USC wide receiver Drake London celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Washington State in September.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

The more trips it has taken to the red zone, the worse USC’s offense seems to look this season. While the Trojans have come up completely empty only twice on trips inside the 20, the conversion rate doesn’t tell the whole story.

In its four losses, USC has turned 18 trips to the red zone into just 10 touchdowns. That rate has to improve if there’s any hope of finishing the season out strong.

“We’re just not finishing,” McGuire said. “That’s kind of been the whole story of our offense this year.”

The run game especially could stand to improve in the red zone, where USC has averaged a measly 1.78 yards per carry. Not that the passing game has been much better, as Kedon Slovis has completed just 48% of his passes inside the 20.


Next quarterback up

Arizona wide receiver Jamarye Joiner might see time at quarterback against the Trojans.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)


Arizona lost its top two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries in consecutive weeks, leaving just one healthy passer on scholarship. But while freshman Will Plummer may be the guy by default, he might not be the only one to play quarterback for Arizona on Saturday.

Receiver Jamarye Joiner, a former high school quarterback, has taken snaps out of the Wildcat formation and could see his role grow with Arizona desperate at the position.

The opposite is true for USC as it enters Saturday with its electric freshman quarterback fully healthy for the first time in six weeks. Jaxson Dart should be cleared to play against Arizona, and with USC in place to take a big lead, it’s not out of the question that we see the freshman play quite a bit.


Young man’s game

Raesjon Davis practices with Mater Dei in 2019.
USC linebacker Raesjon Davis, seen here practicing with Mater Dei in 2019, could see some playing time for the Trojans on Saturday.
(Shotgun Spratling / For The Times)

During its bye week, USC held a young players scrimmage with the intention of giving freshmen and sophomores more opportunities to prove deserving of playing time.


They must not have made much of an impression. Many of USC’s top recruits in the 2021 class remain in limited or nonexistent roles. Defensive end Korey Foreman is the most notable as the top recruit in the class, as he received just seven snaps against Notre Dame and 11 the week before in a loss to Utah.

Linebacker Raesjon Davis, the second-highest-rated recruit in USC’s freshman class, hasn’t seen a snap since the opener against San Jose State. Cornerback Ceyair Wright, the next highest-rated freshman on USC’s defense, hasn’t played since Washington State.

Assuming Saturday goes as planned, it could be an ideal opportunity to finally get those players some extra time.