Well, the unthinkable happened last week.
For a variety of reasons which included turnovers, penalties, dropped passes, disastrous special teams play, poor coaching decisions, and a late defensive collapse, the Trojans lost at home to a 41 point underdog.
The reasons why it happened have been discussed ad nauseum, so how should the Trojans move forward? Good question.
A lot will depend on who starts the game at QB. Pete Carroll has hinted that the embattled John David Booty may sit even if he is physically available. I don't believe that for a second. My guess is that he will start, and Mark Sanchez will play as well. So how will Arizona play the game. Here's a look.
Arizona offense vs. USC Defense
The Wildcats have improved dramatically offensively, mostly due to the influence of new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, who came from Texas Tech. The offense is not exactly like Texas Tech's, but when the team goes into the shotgun, they are running the Red Raider offense.
Arizona is a little similar in style and play calling to the way Oklahoma was in 2004. When they line up under center, they usually run the ball. When they line up in the shotgun, they're going to chuck it. However, Dykes is not as predictable as Oklahoma OC Chuck Long was. He will run the ball from under center eight times in a row to lull you to sleep, then he'll go play action and try to hammer you deep. The routes that they run from the shotgun are far more varied, and they will empty the backfield and go five wide. The Washington State game was a good example of what Dykes can do when the offense is clicking on all cylinders. They crushed WSU.
The formula is pretty simple for Arizona. When they have run the ball well, they have scored and won. In their two wins, they run for 416 yards and averaged 46.5 points per game. In their four losses, they have run for a total of 100 yards and averaged a little over 19 points per game. Against the Beavers they managed nine rushing yards. Ouch.
They just aren't built to run the ball. Their offensive line is not very good, and their stable of running backs is average. Nic Grisgby has done a good job for them, but he won't knock your socks off. They will use him in the passing game though, as Texas tech does with their backs. Chris Jennings] also gets a lot of receptions, and the team uses him quite a bit in their shotgun sets.
Arizona has emphasized the passing game this season even more than usual for the Pac-10. No one has attempted more passes, a startling 45 per game. Willie Tuitama threw the ball 62 times against Cal! But as I said above, the Cats are better when they are more balanced. Texas Tech can win a game with 50 yards rushing, Arizona cannot. They do not have enough experience with the offense.
The passing offense consists of a lot of short passes, which are intended to catch a team sleeping for bombs later. Dykes does a good job of taking the longview when it comes to playcalling. You'll see a lot of bubble screens, slants, hitches, and curls early, then they try to hit you with the double moves and the fly routes.
Mike Thomas has been their main guy, and he leads the team in catches, yards, and TDs. He has some speed, so teams tend to cheat the safety to his side. Terrell Turner and Anthony Johnson are the team's secondary receivers. They do a nice job.
The Cats have been far more productive because they have tried to minimize their weakness (the OL) and play to their strengths: the wide receivers and Tuitama. The quick passing game has saved Tuitama the beating that he has taken the last two seasons, although he has still taken quite a few sacks. He has thrown 15 TDs against seven INTs, which is good considering the amount of times he has had to throw the ball.
The problem for Arizona is that they have turned the ball over a little too much, and they have struggled in the red zone. They are last in red zone offense because they don't run the ball well and teams can't clamp down on the short passing game. Still, the offense has improved by leaps and bounds, and with the way the Trojans give up the short stuff, I wouldn't be surprised to see Tuitama get into a groove.
Arizona Defense vs. USC Offense
On the other hand, the Cats have taken a step back on this side of the ball. Some of that is because the conference is so experienced at quarterback. Their run defense is about the same, but their pass defense has given up 50 yards more per game. That's hard to understand because they pass rush has improved with more experience and talent along the defensive front, and they have outstanding corners.
Their defense is the kind though that could give SC trouble. They will play their corners right on the line if necessary, and I think after watching the Stanford game, they'll be doing a lot of that. They don't do a lot of blitzing, but they will show it and then roll into some different coverages.
Many Pac-10 QBs of late have felt that Arizona's defense under Mike Stoops is the toughest to prepare for in the conference. It not so much because he shoes different fronts. It's because he disguises his coverages well. What looks like a Cover 2 at the line will roll into a Cover 3. He'll play CBs on the ball, yet he'll play zone, have the outside backers fly to the flats, and the corners will follow the receivers to the intermediate portion of the sideline.
When you have corners like Wilrey Fontenot and especially Antoine Cason, you can do those things. These guys can play man to man defense, and they have made plays on interceptions as well. Cason had a TD just last week against Oregon State. Devin Ross has also played well for the Cats.
I think what has hurt Arizona a little is that Louis Holmes has not bee the type of player that people thought he would be. Most of Arizona's push comes from inside.
I think regardless of who starts at QB the gameplan is going to be the same. SC is going to try to run the ball right at Arizona. The Cats do not play eight man fronts much if at all, and Cal and Oregon State both ran the ball sith a lot of success.
There will be a lot of play action passing and drag routes. The Trojans again will look to Fred Davis to have a big game, but his effect will be minimized if Sanchez gets the start. Sanchez attacks, and that would mean that the receivers could see more passes.
On the other side of the ball, the Trojans will likely do less blitzing than they have in previous games, because it is hard to do against this style of offense. We'll see more base defense because the team will be facing a veteran quarterback who can hurt you with the deep ball. Arizona will not be able to run the ball at all. They have had trouble against the better defensive teams on their schedule, only cracking 100 yards twice for the season against NAU and WSU, who are not good on defense.
The bottom line is that this team has to not beat itself this week. In both of the past two weeks, a barrage of mistakes helped to carry the other team to the finish line. Unlike Washington, Stanford was able to make plays at the end to take their opportunity.
If you would have told me that after two and a half quarters, SC would have outgained Stanford 347-50, that Pritchard would have completed a third of his passes, and Stanford wasn't able to run the ball, I would have told you that SC murdered Stanford. But four dropped passes, five turnovers, poor special teams, and some ill timed penalties, kept the game closer than it should have been.
I'm betting that the team will play a more findamentally sound football game on Saturday, and that will be enough to cruise to a victory. Carroll's teams are 5-0 since 2002 after losses, and 4-1 against the spread. I'll take them to cover.
Questions, comments, or info? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org