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How does Arizona stack up against USC?

NCAA Football: Arizona at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats and USC Trojans both enter Saturday’s game at 2-2, and both are looking for a leg up in a wide open Pac-12 South race.

With a line of -3.5 for USC, people are expecting a close game, and that will likely be the case. With such a tight margin, matchups will be key to either team getting an edge and earning a victory.

Here’s how the two teams stack up.

The numbers

Arizona’s passing game vs. USC’s secondary

It’s no secret that Arizona has had some trouble in the passing game this season. Khalil Tate has struggled in Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone’s offense oriented on passing. Against USC’s defensive backfield, that doesn’t bode well.

The Trojans secondary is full of experience, with four seniors starting. Two of these upperclassmen are Iman Marshall and Ajene Harris. Both are speedy enough to keep up with Arizona’s explosive receivers. The lone underclassmen in USC’s secondary is freshman safety Talanoa Hufanga. Despite his youth, he’s proven himself so far with 16 tackles and two passes defensed. His fellow safety Marvell Tell III is undoubtedly the star of this unit though. Tell is a captain and a three-year starter who’s been terrorizing quarterbacks for his whole career.

That isn’t to say Arizona doesn’t have any hope in the air though. Shun Brown and Tony Ellison have done a great job getting open on shorter routes. Both Bryce Wolma and Jamie Nunley have been able to get a couple of key reception in the tight end position. The key for Arizona this game is Shawn Poindexter. Poindexter leads the team in receiving yardage by a wide margin, but most importantly he’s 6’5” and a vital big target. USC doesn’t have a secondary member at Poindexter’s height, and the tallest likely to see action on Saturday is 6’2”.

What scares me though, is USC’s experience. Not only are they older, they’ve all seen significant playing time, and almost all of them have played against Tate before. A lot of Arizona’s big plays come from the play action leading to a deep throw. If the running game isn’t up to snuff, the USC defense will sniff out the play action and stop the passing game. USC has the slight edge here, but Poindexter against the entire defensive backfield will be fun to watch.

Arizona’s running game vs. USC’s front seven

The running game has been much more successful for the Wildcats recently, but they’ll have quite a challenge going against this USC defense.

USC’s top three tacklers also happen to be three of their starting linebackers. Porter Gustin and John Houston are both incredibly strong players who will be spending a lot of time stopping runners and shedding blocks. The key piece for the USC defense, however, is senior captain Cameron Smith. Smith is an NFL prospect with an impressive 40 tackles in what basically amounts to three games. The USC defensive line will likely consist of senior Malik Dorton, sophomore Brandon Pili, and junior Christian Rector. Nose tackle Brandon Pili, will be key, since he’ll be manning the middle of the line, where Arizona has run most of its plays.

However, the Arizona running game is just as powerful. J.J. Taylor has proven he is worth the hype in the last couple of weeks, and is on pace for just shy of 1,500 yards on the season, with 284 against the Beavers. Admittedly, he’s torn up Southern Utah and Oregon State, which are quite weaker defenses than USC’s. Still, it was exciting to see his performances there. What was equally exciting was backup Gary Brightwell proving he was plenty explosive on his own against Oregon State. They owe a lot of credit for their explosiveness to left tackle Layth Friekh, who recently returned from a two-game suspension. He has turned Arizona’s offensive line from a major weakness to at least a passable unit, and that’s been vital.

I don’t like the thought of tiny Taylor going against huge players like Pili and Smith. Nevertheless, Arizona has shown me just enough to make me think the running game will do OK. In my opinion, this matchup will decide the game, and it’s probably the closest one on the list.

USC’s passing offense vs. Arizona secondary

USC’s offense is built on youth, unlike their defense. With their youngest unit facing Arizona’s most experienced, the battle should be fascinating.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know JT Daniels is a true freshman who graduated early from Mater Dei to become the successor to Sam Darnold. You’re also likely aware that Daniels has looked like a true freshman so far, with frustrating offensive performances against UNLV, Stanford, and Texas. However, Daniels had his first game where the potential really shined against Washington State, effectively leading the team and minimizing mistakes. It helps when you have an explosive high school teammate to throw to. Amon-Ra St. Brown has quickly become the latest St. Brown to star in a prestigious program’s offense. Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, and Velus Jones are also key pieces that are sure to get some targets.

Arizona has the players in the secondary to counteract these weapons. Jace Whittaker is still questionable thanks to injuries, but Jarrius Wallace and Lorenzo Burns have picked up the slack in his absence. Burns has a solid 6 passes defensed in this young season, and if he’s facing St. Brown, that number will probably rise. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles has been another key player in the defensive backfield, patrolling the deep part of the field and shutting down whatever he can. Grad transfer Tim Hough has been huge as well, recording 10 tackles and adding much-needed depth to the squad.

If this was Daniels’ first road game, I would feel pretty confident saying Arizona would be able to slow down USC’s pass defense. However, Daniels has been to Stanford and Texas, both in primetime, both hard environments to win in. I think there’s still some difficulty for him in an environment like Tucson, but it won’t be as pronounced. It all depends on Daniels, but I’m gonna say he falls flat again and Arizona’s secondary takes the advantage.

USC’s running game vs. Arizona’s front seven

This matchup is going to be very similar to its counterpart between the Wildcat offense and Trojan defense. The main difference is USC’s depth.

The Trojans use a veritable stable of running backs in their offense. The player most people are likely most aware of is sophomore Stephen Carr. However, both senior Aca’Cedric Ware and sophomore Vavae Malepeai have seen significant touches as well, with Malepeai actually putting up the best numbers so far. USC also has a senior-laden offensive line, with three starters being upperclassmen. Needless to say, the talent is there for the Trojans.

Arizona’s front seven doesn’t quite match the experience level of the USC offense. Colin Schooler and Tony Fields are a pair of great linebackers that will continue to get better with each game. The defensive line also showed huge improvement against the Beavers last week, with PJ Johnson and Kylan Wilborn among the many who showed promise. The real key here will be getting to the quarterback. Arizona’s defense has failed miserably at that task so far, and if Daniels is facing pressure then Arizona’s win probability will rise dramatically.

If I gave Arizona’s run game the advantage, I have to do the same for USC’s. This is the make or break game for this defensive front, though. Either they’ve improved and will be an asset going into the conference slate or they’ll stay as the team’s biggest weakness.

Arizona special teams vs. USC special teams

USC kicker Chase McGrath has gone 6-of-8 kicking field goals this year, and Arizona kicker Lucas Havrisik has struggled with only four of his eight attempts being converted.

In the return game, both Velus Jones and Stephen Carr have been awfully explosive on kickoffs, with the former averaging 23 yards and the latter averaging 37. Arizona’s J.J. Taylor has the only return score between the two teams, on a kickoff against Southern Utah. Shun Brown has been mostly bottled up on punt returns, but last year proved he can break loose.

Overall, USC has the advantage here because they can trust their kicker if the offense stalls. However, this will likely play a pretty minor role in the game, so it’s not as big as the other matchups.

Final thoughts

This is a close matchup, and that shows when you break it down. Both running games will probably do pretty well, and both passing games have a higher chance of being shut down.

If I had to choose which team has the best side in this one, I’d pick the Trojans. Arizona has plenty of chance to win though, because this game is being played in Tucson. The ZonaZoo should be going crazy, and the stands will probably be reasonably full. The one player who is really a lynchpin in the game’s result is JT Daniels. If Daniels keeps growing and can quiet the Arizona crowd, USC will probably earn a key victory. If the crowd or defensive front gets to him, and he starts making freshman mistakes, Arizona has the game in reach.

It should be a fun one to watch, and one of the most exciting games of the season.