It was only a few weeks ago that the Arizona Wildcats were teetering on the abyss after an 0-2 start, all those lofty expectations for the 2018 season going up in flames. But two convincing wins later and Arizona is heading into Saturday’s huge home showdown with USC with plenty of momentum.
The Wildcats haven’t beat the Trojans since 2011 though all but one game since then has been competitive, a testament to Arizona’s ability to hang with a team that is supposed to have far and away more talent than anyone else in the Pac-12.
The same scenario applies this season, yet USC (2-2) has yet to look like a team loaded with 5-star prospects and appears quite vulnerable. Can Arizona take advantage of this?
Here are the storylines to watch on Saturday night:
More ground and pound?
It cannot be understated how much of an impact the return of left tackle Layth Friekh has had on Arizona’s offensive line. In the two games that he was out, serving an NCAA suspension, the Wildcats averaged 139.5 yards per game and 3.28 yards per carry, but since coming back they’ve run for 355 yards per game and 7.98 yards per carry.
That includes 424 yards against Oregon State, with JJ Taylor going for 284 yards.
USC allows 179.5 rushing yards per game, third-worst in the Pac-12. The Trojans were shredded for 308 yards on the ground in the season opener against UNLV,
Flustering the youngster
USC is being led by true freshman quarterback JT Daniels, who skipped his final year of high school to join the Trojans over the summer. He has started all four games, throwing for 1,060 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Three of those TD passes came in last week’s 39-36 win over Washington State, which followed up performances against Stanford and Texas where he was picked three times and averaged less than seven yards per pass attempt.
Daniels has been sacked 11 times and hurried nearly as often, so look for Arizona to be more aggressive than normal when it comes to pressuring the pocket. The Wildcats have five sacks in their last two games after failing to record one during the 0-2 start.
The kicking situation
Lucas Havrisik has missed four of eight field goals, including both attempts at Oregon State last week. Arizona only had five misses all of last season.
Expected to be one of the most reliable players on the team entering training camp, Havrisik has been far from it. So much so Arizona opted for a fake—with holder Jake Glatting running for a first down—on one attempt against Oregon State.
If Saturday’s game is as close as expected, with the Vegas listing USC as a 3-point favorite, a missed kick could mean the difference.
Swarming to the ball
Arizona has been credited with 19 pass breakups and three forced fumbles in four games, yet it has just one takeaway—an interception by Jarrius Wallace against Southern Utah on a tipped pass.
Winning the turnover battle is often a strong indicator of which team will come out on top. Arizona needs to get its hands on a loose ball when the opponent coughs it up, which last happened against Arizona State last November.
Who plays and who sits?
This is the fifth game of the season, meaning that for certain players it means the difference between getting redshirted and having a year of eligibility off the books.
Only two Arizona true freshmen—safety McKenzie Barnes and offensive tackle Donovan Laie—have played in all four games so far, meaning the first time they set foot on the field Saturday they’re no longer eligible to redshirt.
The same applies for many sophomores, juniors and seniors, many of whom are starters including a few that have been in and out of the starting lineup.
There’s been no indication any of Arizona’s players are looking at transferring midway through the season, as has been the case elsewhere in college football, but if there are any surprising absences from the participation chart this could be the reason why.