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October 9, 2013

Game preview: USC vs. Arizona




Game 6: 'The Sun Is Coming Up on the Ocean'

With the darkness of the Lane Kiffin Era left behind, can Ed Orgeron's Trojans find their way on Thursday against Arizona?

The USC Trojans (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12 South) return home - minus one head coach - to face the Arizona Wildcats (3-1, 0-1) this Thursday, October 10, at 7:30 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Fox Sports 1 television audience. It's USC's first ever non-Thanksgiving, non-bowl Thursday game at the Coliseum and the 37th meeting between the two schools, with Troy owning a 28-8 edge, including victories in nine of the past 11 meetings. The Trojans blew a 28-13 third-quarter lead in Tucson a season ago, falling 39-36 in an offensive fireworks show that - in retrospect - marked the beginning of the end for Lane Kiffin, the Trojan head coach who was fired in the early morning hours of Sept. 29. USC won the previous Coliseum meeting, 48-41, in 2011.

The Trojans took a much-needed Saturday off last week after a tumultuous trip to Tempe the preceding weekend. On Sept. 28, USC lost at Arizona State, 62-41, allowing 28 unanswered Sun Devil points in the third quarter. Kiffin was fired before he could even hop in his car to drive home from LAX, and Ed Orgeron was named interim coach on that Sunday afternoon by USC Athletic Director Pat Haden. Meanwhile, the Wildcats also took last weekend off after failing their first real test of 2013 in a 31-13 defeat at the hands of then-No. 16 Washington in rainy Seattle.

Orgeron, who is in his 11th season as a USC assistant (1998-2004; 2010-13), has certainly changed the atmosphere around the program in his 10 days on the job, lifting what feels like a rather heavy load off of the players who struggled under Kiffin. Thursday's game will not be Coach O's first as a head coach - he spent three years in the role at Mississippi (2005-07), notching a 10-25 mark. In Tucson, Arizona headman Rich Rodriguez (131-90-2 in 19 seasons as a collegiate head coach, 11-6 at Arizona) is in his second season with the Wildcats. Under him, the Wildcats are yet another Pac-12 team playing a fast-paced, high-scoring style on offense, while looking to utilize speed and quickness in an aggressive, if undersized, defense. After notching an 8-5 mark in his opening season in the desert, Wildcat fans have high hopes for the future under Rodriguez. But what of the present?

Arizona Offense
Co-offensive coordinators Calvin Magee and Rod Smith have put together one of the Pac-12's most fearsome rushing attacks during the past two seasons. Of all the differing variations of up-tempo, read-option style football the Trojans will see in 2013, Arizona's may be the best at running the football (barring what would, at this point, be a miraculous meeting with Oregon in the Pac-12 title game). And senior quarterback B.J. Denker has been a huge factor in its success so far in 2013. After taking over for Matt Scott, who bedeviled USC a season ago, Denker is Arizona's second-leading rusher (280 yards, 5.5 average, six TDs) - and his four runs of 30-plus yards are the Cats' main source of big plays in 2013 (only 40 Arizona offensive plays have gained 10 yards or more, and the Wildcats per-play average of 5.54 yards ranks 10th in the Pac-12). However, Denker's work in the passing game has been - in a word - dreadful. The Wildcats rank last in the conference and No. 118 nationally in passing, averaging just 112 yards per game. Denker has hit on only 50 percent of his passes and has two INTs to match his two TDs.

He hasn't received much help from a mostly green receiving corps. The Wildcats operate out of a four-wide set, but this undersized group has struggled for consistency. Junior Garic Wharton is the most seasoned regular that's made any impact so far, with eight receptions for 117 yards. Sophomore David Richards, who was solid last season, missed the first three games of 2013 with a foot injury and made his first appearance against Washington. The Wildcats have to hope he can step up. A pair of diminutive true freshmen, Samajie Grant (nine catches, including the only wideout TD reception) and Nate Phillips (seven catches), have been among the team's leaders, while sophomore Johnny Jackson and senior TE/REC Terrence Miller are also likely to be targeted.

The star of the Wildcats' offense, however, is junior running back Kadeem Carey, the nation's leading rusher in 2012 who has picked up right where he left off after serving a one-game suspension at the start of the season. He's rushed for 431 yards in three games (5.9 yards per carry) and five TDs. He's also caught six passes for 82 yards (a big concern for USC with how they struggled covering ASU's running backs in the passing game). Carey has a current streak of seven 100-yard rushing outings, during which he's averaged 192 yards per game, and a TD streak of 12 games. Senior Daniel Jenkins is no slouch in reserve, averaging 6.5 yards on 39 carries, along with five pass receptions.

Arizona's front five is led by versatile senior right guardChris Putton, who can play all five O-line positions. Junior tackles Mickey Baucus (LT) and Fabbians Ebbele (RT) have been crucial to the Wildcats' growth in the rushing attack. Junior center Steven Gurrola and sophomore LG Cayman Bundage (RG) round out the starting five, with sophomore Lene Maiava providing depth at both guard and tackle.

Arizona Defense
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel took over one of the conference's youngest groups in many a year upon arrival in 2012, and the Wildcats struggled through the expected growing pains. However, those pains seem to be paying off a bit through four games in 2013. Arizona's 3-3-5 set has completely turned around against the pass in 2013 after getting destroyed throughout much of 2012, and the Cats now rank in the conference's top four in passing, total and scoring defense. Still, Arizona hasn't been able to muster consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks (six total sacks through four games - half of those in the opener vs. FCS opponent Northern Arizona), and they've been vulnerable against the run, allowing nearly 150 yards per contest - including 244 to Washington.

Up front, seniors Tevin Hood (NG) and Sione Tuihalamaka (DE) are the anchors. Each has three tackles for loss among 27 combined stops. Junior Reggie Gilbert is the other end (and can also rotate to the nose), and counts a sack among his eight tackles. Senior Justin Washington also is likely to see some time as a pass rusher.

Senior MLB Jake Fischer has been the heartbeat of the Wildcats defense, but is apparently questionable for Thursday night's game after suffering an ankle injury at Washington. Arizona's fourth leading tackler (20), Fischer has started 25 games in his Arizona career and would be a massive loss Thursday. If he's unable to go, junior Hank Hobson (four tackles in four games) is likely to get the call. On the weak side, senior Marquis Flowers, who destroyed USC last year with two INTs and a forced fumble, remains a key playmaker (19 tackles, three for loss). The biggest revelation for the Wildcats in 2013 has been true freshman strongside linebacker Scooby Wright. He leads Arizona with 28 tackles and four tackles for loss, including a career-high nine stops at Washington.

The Arizona secondary has plenty of experience, with four juniors and a senior starting. And it's shown, as the Wildcats have seven picks already in 2013. Senior Shaquelle Richardson is a leader, with 19 tackles (three for loss) and a pick. Junior "bandit" safety Jaren Tevis is second on the team with 27 tackles, while classmate Tra'Mayne Bondurant has 21 stops and three big INTs. Free safety Jourdon Grandon (14 tackles, one INT) and cornerback Jonathan McKnight (14 tackles) round out the group.

Arizona Special Teams
Senior Jake Smith handles all of the Wildcats' placekicking duties. He's four-of-six on FG attempts (with a long of 41), but both misses came from inside 40 yards (and he's missed a PAT in 19 tries as well). He does have touchbacks on half of his 28 kickoff opportunities. The punting duties fall on sophomore Drew Riggleman, who's averaging just 36.5 yards per kick, but has put six of his 15 boots inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Receivers Phillips and Jackson split Arizona's return duties, with Jackson taking the bulk of punts (9.4 yard average on nine opportunities) and Phillips handling most kickoffs (19.3 yards on six chances).

USC Offensive Gameplan
Note to new offensive play caller Clay Helton: limit your play sheet to 8.5" x 11" (at most) and you'll already be seen as an improvement by many USC fans! Jokes aside, one of the first ways the Kiffin firing actually makes the remainder of the 2013 much more interesting is to see how Helton, who many players seem to have taken a liking to throughout Sun Bowl and spring practices, calls the game for Cody Kessler and Co. Certainly, Helton will be hamstrung this Thursday, with Marqise Lee appearing very doubtful to return from a knee sprain suffered at ASU and Darreus Rogers questionable, leaving USC three scholarship wide receivers - and De'Von Flournoy is also questionable. As USCFootball.com's Dan Weber noted on Tuesday, Trojan fans would be wise to familiarize themselves with the names of walk-on receivers Robby Kolanz (who saw time late in Tempe), Cody Skene, George Katrib and Christian Tober.

Still, aside from the Trojans perhaps playing a more up-tempo style, USC's success on the ground at Arizona State - Tre Madden rushed for 128 yards and Justin Davis 122, as both scored three TDs - combined with Arizona's struggles in run defense early this season would lead one to believe that run, run and run some more would be the recipe for Thursday night. Can the Trojans' offensive line, which has been so inconsistent - especially on slower developing passing plays and in power running situations - make such a gameplan work for four quarters?

Don't be surprised to see USC do its best to get its talented tight ends more deeply involved in the downfield passing game Thursday. Without Lee or Rogers, they almost have no choice. What about the return of Silas Redd from the meniscus surgery that has kept him out for 2013 so far? How will that affect the running back rotation? Will we see more of Buck Allen and Ty Isaac in the passing game? It's hard to say - but it will be a helluva lot more intriguing to find out than sitting through another Kiffin-called game. One thing to note: the Wildcats will capitalize on any USC mistakes - not only is Arizona +5 in turnover margin (19th nationally) but they've turned that into a 42-6 edge in points off turnovers, including a trio of pick-sixes.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Welp … so much for that word I dropped in the first sentence here a couple weeks back to describe USC's defense in 2013: amazing. Or, maybe not - because it was just as amazing (in every negative sense of the word) to watch them get run over, through and around by an ASU offense that had every answer for Clancy Pendergast's attacking scheme. Still, even though the Trojans wilted under the constant pressure of the Sun Devil attack, it was refreshing to see them try to make something happen throughout, rather than just sit back and take it as they did under Monte Kiffin in last season's record performance by Oregon.

As much as I called Arizona State's Marion Grice the key to the Sun Devil attack (he scored four times on 19 touches, and had the Trojans so befuddled that Taylor Kelly and Jaelen Strong were able to get free in the passing game pretty much whenever they wanted), Carey is the key to the Wildcats' offense. Everything Arizona wants to do and can do is based off of Carey's effectiveness. Even Denker's play as a runner is keyed by defenses over-accounting for Carey.

The trick here, though, is that, as a passer, Denker is no Kelly - not even close - and the Wildcats don't even have a pair of receivers who are as dangerous as Strong is all by himself. USC needs to do its best to slow Carey - while he's going to get his yards, keeping his per-carry number below average would be a great starting point - and allow its defensive backfield to go man-to-man against the unproven Arizona receiving corps. Make Denker beat you with his arm - something he hasn't shown he's capable of, yet.

The Pick
Picking a winner for the rest of the 2013 Trojan season will be an even bigger crapshoot than its been the past couple years. It's a team that dumped its coach after five games. It's a team that's shown it's capable of losing both a 10-7 slog and a 62-41 shootout. It's a team that has a lot of talent … but not a lot of depth.

One thing is certain this week - the Trojans will be looser and more fired up to play than at any point so far in 2013. And that's due to the solid transitional work done by Orgeron and the remaining staff. They know this group went through the wringer with the media scrutiny of and fan dissatisfaction with Kiffin. Job No. 1 was lifting that weight off of them and making the game fun again. I expect a riled up, loosey goosey bunch of Trojans to take that field Thursday night.

The question then becomes - what's the right balance of motivation and relaxation? USC is already 102nd nationally in penalty yards per game (and the Trojans have been penalized 36 times in 2013, compared to just 14 for Arizona), and missed assignments have been an issue on both sides of the ball. It's probably too much to expect all (or even most) of those mistakes to disappear in 10 days worth of an Orgeron-run operation. But it's not too much to expect USC to have enough to beat an Arizona team that has been one-note on offense and struggled to defend USC's lone consistency on offense this season - the rushing attack.

USC 27, Arizona 17

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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