USC travels to Arizona seeking progress after opening win – Press Enterprise
As chaos erupted across the Pac-12 on Friday, USC stayed on track for its road trip to play Arizona on Saturday.
The Trojans’ first opponent, Arizona State, had to cancel its game against California this weekend due to COVID-19 spreading among the Sun Devils’ roster. The outbreak, which reportedly is in the double digits, includes head coach Herm Edwards six days after USC’s season-opening win over ASU.
But USC is still on track to play this weekend. Per a team spokesperson, all members of the team’s traveling party had negative COVID-19 test results throughout this week and the team was cleared to travel to Tucson on Friday night.
So, then the question becomes, what does a good performance look like for USC against Arizona?
The Trojans won their season opener, yes, but it wasn’t a statement game. Kedon Slovis and his receiving corps’ late heroics, and some key special teams and defensive plays, helped the Trojans escape with the one-point win.
But it was a performance from which USC went home understanding there was a lot to clean up before the next game.
First and foremost, turnovers. The Trojans had four of them against Arizona State, three on the ground and one through the air. This has been drilled into the players’ heads all week.
But another area of focus for the USC offense is third-down efficiency. The Trojans were 7 for 19 (36.8%) on third down, well below last year’s 45.6% conversion rate.
USC views this as especially important this week because it understands the Arizona offense likes to push the tempo. Longer offensive drives would allow the USC defense to rest on the sidelines.
“We were not where our standard normally is for that opening ballgame,” head coach Clay Helton said. “Our big point of emphasis, and we worked it all day [Wednesday], was third downs.”
On the defensive side of the ball, it’s a familiar refrain. Helton wants to see his team improve on its perimeter containment, not allowing Arizona to break runs to the outside.
USC won’t have to contend with a running quarterback this week; Arizona QB Grant Gunnell is much more pocket-bound than Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels. Beyond that, Helton felt USC’s fundamentals in this area were at times lacking against the Sun Devils.
“We did get hit on the [run-pass option] for a big play when Talanoa [Hufanga] jumped inside on one instead of holding the force out there and bending it back into [Isaiah Pola-Mao],” Helton said. “[The Wildcats] don’t have a running quarterback, per se, but he is elite when it comes to the RPO game outside.”
When USC has the ball
This is a very Arizona defense than the Trojans faced a year ago. First of all, the Wildcats lost their top three tacklers from last year’s team, all to transfer. One of their top corners, Jace Whittaker, is in the NFL. So there will be a lot of new personnel.
Arizona also has a new defensive coordinator, Paul Rhoads, who hasn’t called plays since 2017 at Arkansas. So for the second week in a row, the Trojans are entering a game with no game tape on the defense they are going to face.
Helton joked Thursday he hoped it wouldn’t be three weeks in a row where this was the case. But after USC’s Week 3 opponent, Utah, was forced to cancel Saturday’s game with UCLA – its second consecutive game due to COVID-19 cases – it appears that will in fact be the case (assuming USC and Utah are actually able to play at all).
When Arizona has the ball
The Trojans are preparing to face a fast-paced Arizona attack, and one defensive coordinator Todd Orlando expects to try to run the ball after USC’s limited success against the Sun Devils.
“We’re going to have to get to the ball and be fast in terms of our assignments and our alignments,” Orlando said. “We’ve got to stop the run to begin with and we know balls are going out in the perimeter. … We know that we can play much, much better than we did.”
The Wildcats lost last year’s leading rusher, J.J. Taylor, to the NFL, but return senior Gary Brightwell. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound back averaged 5.9 yards in his 66 rushing attempts last year and scored five touchdowns.
Gunnell had limited experience as a freshman, but did play extensively in USC’s win over Arizona last year. He completed 16 of 26 passes in that game for 196 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.