USC vs. Arizona: Four things to watch — Trojans seek running game redemption

 MarShawn Lloyd carries the ball with Colorado players in pursui
USC running back MarShawn Lloyd carries the ball during a 48-41 victory over Colorado on Sept. 30. The Trojans averaged only 3.8 yards per carry against the Buffaloes, something they hope to improve upon against Arizona.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The record is perfect. The film is far from it. Entering the halfway mark of the season, it’s right where USC hoped to be.

“5-0 is plenty good enough,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “The execution, has it been perfect? Is it going to need to get better? Of course. … You’ve gotta own the good with the bad.”

Two uneven road performances have shown the No. 9 Trojans (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12) more negatives than positives. The same shaky defense that plagued them last year reared its head last week as Colorado nearly shocked the Trojans by slashing a 27-point lead to seven. With four games against teams currently ranked in the top 25 still on the docket in the last six games, Saturday’s midseason checkpoint against Arizona doesn’t offer any break.


USC’s defense is breaking down at a more rapid rate than last season. Lincoln Riley says new problems have flared up. Players say they must fix it.

Oct. 3, 2023

“We gotta go out there and dominate and kill,” quarterback Caleb Williams said. “We have to be the most physical team on the field at that time and in the country this week and from weeks on out.”

Here are four things to watch in USC’s game against the Wildcats (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) at the Coliseum on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. PDT (ESPN):


Run club

USC running back MarShawn Lloyd carries the ball during a victory over Nevada on Sept. 2.
MarShawn Lloyd carries the ball during USC’s victory over Nevada on Sept. 2.
(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

MarShawn Lloyd hit LeBron James’ silencer celebration after his first touchdown run against Colorado. Then USC’s running game went silent.

Lloyd, who rushed for 154 yards on 14 carries against Arizona State, finished with 84 on 13 carries against Colorado. USC had its least-efficient running game of the season, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry.


“We kind of got physically beat this game,” center Justin Dedich said.

With a 34-14 halftime lead, the Trojans handed the ball to a running back only six times during the second half. Riley acknowledged after the game he didn’t call the run game very well. Lloyd, who has emerged as the top running back over returning back Austin Jones, has taken the responsibility on himself to force Riley’s play-calling hand.

“If you’re on fire, you’re going to just keep getting the ball,” Lloyd said. “So my goal is to just make more plays and have no choice but to keep doing it.”

When the South Carolina transfer does get the ball, he’s running with efficiency: Lloyd’s 8.33 yards per carry ranks second in FBS for players with at least 10 rushes per game. USC’s 6.3 yards per carry is on pace to be its most efficient rushing season since 2005 — Reggie Bush’s Heisman year.

The former USC star has kept a close eye on his alma mater. Bush shared a video on Instagram of Lloyd’s 27-yard touchdown against Colorado, exclaiming “cut back on ‘em then” when Lloyd reversed field from left to right, caught key blocks from Williams and receiver Tahj Washington and ran untouched into the end zone. Seeing Bush’s praise for his play gave Lloyd goosebumps, the running back said.

“Everyone keeps saying that’s something that Reggie Bush probably would have did,” Lloyd said, “which definitely he would have did.”


New corner office

People on the sideline reacts as USC cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace Jensen returns an interception against Colorado
USC cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace Jensen (17) scampers for extra yards and tries to evade Colorado’s Kyndrich Breedlove after intercepting a pass.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Christian Roland-Wallace made his first USC start count. Not only did the Arizona transfer grab his first interception as a Trojan last week against Colorado, but he played every defensive snap to jump to the front of a crowded cornerback rotation.

After fading into a backup nickel role, Roland-Wallace is back home at corner. He started every game at the position for Arizona in the last three years. The experience shows, Riley said, as the Palmdale native has been USC’s “most consistent guy five games in.”

“There’s just a maturity and a confidence about him, and a steadiness, that’s been really good for that room,” Riley said.

Roland-Wallace, one of three Arizona transfers facing their former team this week along with defensive lineman Kyon Barrs and receiver Dorian Singer, had a season-high five tackles against Colorado and notched his first interception since Sept. 18, 2021, while starting in place of Ceyair Wright. Wright, a redshirt sophomore, started the first four games, but played just 14 snaps against Colorado, according to Pro Football Focus. It was the fourth-most for cornerbacks behind starters Roland-Wallace and Domani Jackson and redshirt junior Jacobe Covington, who played 16. Even approaching the halfway point of the season, Riley acknowledged the ongoing competition at the position.


“The cream’s going to rise to the top,” Riley said. “And we need those guys to come out and play at a high level.”


Wrap it up

USC defensive end Solomon Byrd reaches in from behind to try and take down Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders
USC defensive end Solomon Byrd (51) tries to take down Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders (2) at Folsom Field. The Trojans have focused on tackling after struggling in that regard in the second half Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Tackling on the perimeter is USC’s No. 1 defensive priority this week, Riley said. A week after missing 15 tackles against Arizona State, the Trojans whiffed 17 times against Colorado.

“Guys are in position, man,” said linebacker Mason Cobb, who finished with 13 tackles. “I think it’s a mentality thing. … We just have to finish, man. Guys were kind of lulled to sleep a little bit.”

The Buffaloes used a short passing game to neutralize a defensive line that’s been USC’s greatest defensive strength. USC had just eight tackles for loss against Colorado, its fewest since seven in the season opener. Testing the USC secondary that was without starting safety Max Williams, who missed the game because of an undisclosed injury, Colorado racked up 206 of its 371 passing yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus.


Scouting the Wildcats

Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura (7) runs but fails to get a first down against Mississippi State
Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura (7), an elusive run threat, may play against USC after missing last week’s game.
(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

USC will test its tackling against a quarterback who rush end Jamil Muhammad believes could be the most athletic signal-caller the Trojans have seen thus far.

Jayden de Laura, who missed Arizona’s last game with an ankle injury, will start against USC if he is healthy, coach Jedd Fisch said Tuesday. The Washington State transfer is averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

If De Laura doesn’t return, redshirt freshman Noah Fifita will get the second start of his career. The Servite High alumnus threw for 232 yards on 27-of-39 passing in Arizona’s 31-24 loss to Washington. While inexperienced compared with the fourth-year junior De Laura, Fifita has history with Arizona’s top receiver and former Servite teammate Tetairoa McMillan. McMillan, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, caught two of Fifita’s three touchdown passes last week, including one with 1:11 remaining that pulled the Wildcats to within one touchdown before the Huskies recovered the game-ending onside kick.

The Wildcats held Washington, the fourth-best scoring offense in the country, to 31 points in Tucson while limiting the nation’s most explosive passing offense to just one play of 30 yards or longer.