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What to watch for when Arizona faces USC in Los Angeles

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arizona-wildcats-usc-trojans-preview-coliseum-pac-12-turnovers-homecoming-skill-road-pac-12 Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After playing four of their first six games at home, the Arizona Wildcats head out on the road for the next two weeks. The California swing, beginning Saturday at USC (and continuing Oct. 26 at Stanford) could determine whether Arizona makes a bowl in Kevin Sumlin’s second season.

USC (3-3, 2-1) and Arizona (4-2, 2-1) are part of a four-way tie for first place in the Pac-12’s South Division along with ASU (5-1) and Utah (5-1).

The Trojans have won six in a row against the Wildcats, including 24-20 last season in Tucson. Arizona’s last four games at the Los Angeles Coliseum have been decided by a combined 36 points, with the 49-35 loss there in November 2017 the biggest margin (though the game was tied at 35 with eight minutes left.

Here are some of the big things to be keeping an eye on when UA and USC clash:

Bouncing back

Arizona had been on a four-game win streak prior to last week’s game against Washington, and 30 minutes in it looked like the Wildcats were going to make it five in a row (despite a mistake-filled first half). Then they were blown out 38-10 in the second half and all the momentum they’d built was gone.

Now comes the real test: the game after.

“Every game that we play now is going to be big,” junior running back J.J. Taylor said. “We have to come out with the same mentality that we’ve been. With that winning mentality.”

Strange as it may sound, losing to USC won’t be disastrous as long as Arizona plays a competitive game. Keep it close and have a chance at the end and next week’s game at Stanford becomes a great opportunity to turn things around, but get blown out in LA and it will be hard for the Wildcats to get up for another road game right after.

Picking a poison

Much has been made of how diverse Arizona’s offense has been this season, particularly with how so many different running backs and receivers have contributed in a meaningful way. The same can be said for USC, but in a much more prolific way.

The Trojans have been a three-headed monster at running back, led by junior Vavae Malepeai’s 406 yards and four touchdowns. He’s unlikely to play Saturday, but junior Stephen Carr (233 yards, two TDs) and freshman Markese Stepp (241 yards, two TDs) are averaging a combined 6.3 yards per carry.

But it’s the receivers that Arizona has to really worry about.

Senior Michael Pittman Jr., junior Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown have accounted for 106 receptions for 1,341 yards and 11 TDs. Arizona cornerbacks Lorenzo Burns and Jace Whittaker are good, but with three big targets to cover that means at least one will be assigned to either freshmen Christian Roland-Wallace or Bobby Wolfe or junior college transfer Samari Springs.

Let’s not forget about the guy getting the ball to all of these weapons. True freshman Kedon Slovis, forced into action when sophomore J.T. Daniels injured his knee in the season opener, is completing 75 percent of his passes and he threw for 255 yards and two TDs last week at Notre Dame after returning from a concussion.

Holding the line

Arizona has been going with a six-man offensive line this season, in a manner of speaking. In the first five games it started the same guys at four positions while having junior Paiton Fears and redshirt sophomore Edgar Burrola split reps at right tackle.

That changed against Washington, when an injury kept redshirt sophomore Robert Congel from playing his normal left guard spot. Arizona opted to move Fears to that position, giving Burrola all the reps at right tackle … and the results were not good.

Washington sacked Khalil Tate four times and forced him into throwing the ball away more than in any other game. The run game couldn’t do anything on the outside, either.

Will Arizona continue with that same lineup against USC? If not, redshirt junior Bryson Cain, a former starter, could see more time at left guard and enable Fears and Burrola to go back to what works for them.

Another option could be turning to true freshman Jordan Morgan, who played tackle in the first three games but hasn’t been used since. Sumlin said last week that Morgan is part of the travel squad and will be used in an emergency, which might be the case now.

Turnover trends

USC has turned the ball over 13 times this season, most in the Pac-12 and tied for 10th-most in FBS. Arizona isn’t much better, with 10 giveaways including four last week against Washington.

The Wildcats’ turnovers have led to 48 opponent points, while USC’s 13 had resulted in 44 for the other team. But Arizona has also scored 48 points off 12 opponent turnovers, while the Trojans have forced only six turnovers and turned those into just 14 points.

In other words, Saturday night’s game could end up with quite a few sudden-change possessions. How both teams handle the ball—and handle dealing with not handling it well—may be the deciding factor.

A mini-Homecoming

While Sumlin and his staff are trying their best to make Texas a big part of Arizona’s recruiting territory, California remains a big source of 2019 players.

Of the 110 players listed on the online roster, 39 are from the Golden State. Most of those are from the Los Angeles area, including:

  • DL JB Brown
  • CB Lorenzo Burns
  • WR Brian Casteel
  • OL Cody Creason
  • K Lucas Havrisik
  • OL Donovan Laie
  • LB Anthony Pandy
  • WR Cedric Peterson
  • DB Christian Roland-Wallace
  • LB Colin Schooler
  • QB Khalil Tate
  • RB J.J. Taylor
  • CB Jace Whittaker
  • DE Kylan Wilborn
  • S Scottie Young Jr.

Most of those guys didn’t get offered by USC, or the offer came late in the recruiting process as an afterthought. This doesn’t just apply to LA-area players, as Las Vegas-bred Tony Fields II still takes umbrage at the Trojans not wanting him.

“I didn’t get the USC offer, I wanted the USC offer,” the junior linebacker said. “That’s how (it is) for a lot of guys that are from California. It’s like more of a redemption game, it’s like, I’m gonna show you what you could have had. That’s the same with Oregon, the same with Washington.”

While the vast majority of fans in attendance at the Coliseum will be rooting for USC, there will be a fair number of UA fans. And plenty of those will have some close connection with a Wildcat on the field.