USC vs. Arizona

What To Watch For

Run Game Reliance

Ask and you shall receive. After much clamor and demand for USC to run the ball more, the Trojans complied against Cal and had twice as many carries (50) as they had passing attempts (25.)

For the sake of efficiency, the Trojans all but eschewed the air game. But QB Cody Kessler was all for it:

“I’ve always told [Helton]: ‘Whatever you ask of me I’m going to do.’ That’s always been my mentality,” Kessler said this week in practice. “You want me to go out there and throw the ball five times? I’ll throw it five times. Throw it twenty times? I’ll do that. You want me to hand it off? Whatever it may be, but I want to be efficient at doing it.”

Though the partition of reps among Tre Madden, Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis was still a point of contention, the game plan was carries out effectively enough to slow down a potent Cal offense by keeping them off the field and controlling the pace of the game.

“When you look at some of the teams that we’re playing right now, these high-play teams you’re trying to keep that ball away from them, steal a possession from them, or limit their possessions.” — Clay Helton

Against Arizona—an inconsistent offense that still tries to run a lot of plays—establishing the run will be key in managing the tempo once again. Whether those carries go to Madden, Davis, or preferably, Jones, the Trojans reliance on the run will have to continue for them to thrive.

Hand in hand with the running game is the development of USC’s offensive line. After injuries have plagued them over the past few weeks, offensive line coach Bob Connelly says the team welcomed the run-heavy game plan.

“The mentality of the offensive lineman is we love to run the football. We embrace the physicality of the game,” Connelly pointed out. “Whatever it takes to win a football game.”

Hostile. Mobile. Agile. That’s what Connelly says he wants out of this line, and in turn, the running game will keep improving and flourishing, especially aganist tougher upcoming opponents. Against an Arizona defense that has been riddled with injuries, USC should have little trouble getting the run game going from kickoff.

Next Man Up

Looking outside the realm of the backfield, as USC has progressed through what has been a tough schedule amid a tumultuous season, they are also embracing the “Next man up” mentality when it comes to plugging in guys at spots due to injuries.

With Steven Mitchell Jr. and Darreus Rogers making their way back onto the field, and Juju Smith-Schuster having surgery on his hand, the wide receiver position is experiencing a lot of uncertainty, and Kessler has had to, or will have to accommodate against Arizona.

This week at practice, Helton emphasized how Kessler needed to trust his newfound weapons more, especially seeing how well players like De’quan Hampton and Deontay Burnett have been producing.

“My comfort level is way better than at the beginning of the season,” said Hampton who sought out Kessler for a passing drill after practice. “I have the playbook down now I’m just analyzing the defense comfortable now, working on my releases, I can play way faster now.”

Burnett for his part, says coming to USC was his dream, not to mention being able to contribute to the Cardinal and Gold

Yet it isn’t just the receiving corps having to bring the next man up in line to fill in a vacancy. Over in the obscure territory known as Tight Ends Island, Connor Spears, Tyler Petite and Taylor McNamara have seen far more targets during this week’s practice, and say they could see this being the breakout game for the three guys at the position.

“We’ve seen a lot more solo in the gameplay this week, which I love,” said Petite. “Obviously there’s going to have to be some kind of shift with someone being down, but I think we’ve proven ourselves week in and week out that we can handle it.”

Both Petite and Spears, as well as Burnett and Hampton emphasized the importance of developing trust with Kessler, who is understandably much more comfortable with Smith-Schuster and the returning Steven Mitchell Jr. than with the likes of new tight ends and young wide receivers.

“I think that for other guys, including the right ends, we just need to step up and show Cody that we can be that guy.” — Tyler Petite

Though Mitchell and Darreus Rogers are expected to play against the Wildcats, they’re still bouncing back from physical setbacks. That, plus the setback to Smith-Schuster, whose status remains questionable, has the potential to place rising talents like Hampton, Burnett and the tight ends into a more useful role this game.

Avoiding the Trap

On paper, there is no reason USC should not oust the weakened Wildcats on Homecoming week. Yet precedent has already taught us enough to expect the unexpected with this squad.

So, how will the Trojans avoid falling trap to being 20-point favorites this Homecoming Weekend? It’s once again going to come down to the defense, which has been making incremental strides over the past few games.

“It’s the execution part of it, it’s the technique and the mental intensity that it takes to do it over and over,” said defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox of what he has seen these past few weeks. “A couple guys have definitely shown improvement in a couple of those techniques.”

Whether it’s a defensive line that’s finally finding a pass rush and a way to make the opposing quarterback uncomfortable enough to force a mistake, the USC defense has—dare we say—adjusted successfully in the second half of the season.

Not only have the Trojans improved at stopping their opponents’ running game as the season has progressed, but they have also vaulted their way up to first in the Pac-12 in turnover margin.

Turnovers and stopping the run. Both are key to control the tempo and general of a game, something Helton has been preaching since he took over the position. This week, against an inconsistent offense that’s missing their top rusher in Nick Wilson, the task at hand should once again give the defense a positive performance. Helton, for his part, remains cautious.

“They do a great job running for about 265 [yards] a game,” said Helton of the Wildcats. “Then being able to pull the ball get the ball out in space for quick-gain throws … they do it as good as anybody in the country.”

Despite the recent showing against Washington, Arizona still has the second-best scoring offense in the conference and boasts the top rusher in yards per attempt in QB hybrid Jerrard Randall.

“I expect [Anu] Solomon to be in the game at the beginning. It seems like once he messes up a little bit, they’ll bring [Randall] in,” said safety Chris Hawkins. “He’s a chance of pace guy, he likes to run and break the pocket and make plays with his feet … I think we’ll be ready for it.”

Helton called Arizona a “premier run-pass option team” and said getting them off the field will once again be key to controlling the game from the get-go. Hawkins, for his part said the team is ready to face any offense at any tempo.


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You can reach Sports Editor Paolo Uggetti here, or follow him on Twitter @PaoloUggetti

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