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What to watch for when Arizona football visits USC

arizona-wildcats-usc-trojans-football-preview-2021-pac12-drake-london-coliseum-losing-streak Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Arizona’s quest to end its interminable losing streak hits the road for a destination that has not been kind to the Wildcats. Saturday’s venue, the Los Angeles Coliseum, has seen the UA go 1-8 over the last 20 years with the only victory coming in 2009.

Arizona (0-7, 0-4 Pac-12) takes on a USC team that is 3-4 overall and 2-3 in league play, with the Trojans riding a two-game skid after losses to Utah and Notre Dame. They fired their coach, Clay Helton, after Week 2, and could be looking at no bowl game for the third time in four seasons, yet according to DraftKings SportsBook Arizona is a 21-point underdog for this contest. Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.

So it goes when you’ve lost 19 in a row.

Here’s what to be on the lookout for when Arizona tries to end its 19-game losing streak against the Trojans, who it last defeated in 2012.

The Will Plummer/Jamarye Joiner tag team

Will Plummer will get his second consecutive start at quarterback, the first time he’s been assured of being the guy in back-to-back games. Coach Jedd Fisch is hoping that, among other things, leads to a much better performance than in his previous two starts this season.

“Yesterday was his best day of practice that he’s had here, since I’ve been here,” Fisch said Thursday. “I hope that correlates. He was willing to go out and play and play free. He’s still a freshman, so we have to help him get past that freshman hump and really believe like, hey, man, I can go do this.”

Fisch said Plummer continues to improve, going from having an “can I do this” mentality to one where he’s showing confidence and close to letting it all out.

“We’re not at the let it rip part yet,” Fisch said. “We got to get to that part where you feel that you can actually go out there and not just make a play, make the play. We need to continue to build off of that. I believe repetitions is critical there.”

But while Plummer is the guy, he’s not the only guy. Wide receiver Jamarye Joiner will continue to take snaps in the backfield, having done so 10 times against Washington. There are no plans to fully move Joiner back to quarterback, but Fisch said the added reps in practice make it so that Arizona can “expand his package” in the offense.

Spreading out the carries

Fisch said running backs Drake Anderson and Michael Wiley, both of whom missed the Washington game due to injuries, are back for USC. That means fewer touches for freshmen Jalen John and Stevie Rocker Jr., who combined for 152 yards on 27 carries last week, but they’ll still factor into the run game.

“It’ll be a 4-man shuttle at that point and time,” Fisch said of Arizona’s run game, which is averaging 167.3 yards per game in Pac-12 play after an abysmal nonconference performance (230 yards in three games).

Joiner had 25 yards on four carries against Washington, including Arizona’s lone touchdown, and Plummer has three runs of 10-plus yards this season, so the Wildcats have plenty of options on the ground. Same goes for creating running lanes for those ball carriers.

Fullback Clay Markoff played a season-high 14 snaps on offense last game after logging just 20 in the first six contests. The graduate transfer from Washington State figures to see his role continue to increase as Arizona sticks with a ball-control attack that tries to eat clock and minimize mistakes, though how USC lines up on defense will also impact his usage.

“Really, it kind of depends on the type of fronts we’re getting, in what they’re playing to our personnel groupings,” Fisch said. “Do we believe it’s a way to get maybe a nickel off the field and put a linebacker on the field, maybe it’s a way for us to be able to kind of go more downhill rather than a zone scheme where you’re bouncing it. Other parts of it sometimes comes with, you have more double teams when you have a fullback in because you have an additional blocker. So you have the ability to maybe help a guard or help a center with some of the back blocks or some of the gap schemes that we’ll run and then also may potentially, is there a pass that can come off of it? Is there somewhere where we can you know benefit from having that fullback in the game.”

Including when Rocker has lined up at fullback, Fisch said Arizona has had about 30 offensive snaps where it’s used a fullback and two receivers and another 12 to 15 plays with a fullback and two tight ends. That’s how it’s begun the first and most recent games of the season.

“Probably like to get a little bit more of that as the year has gone on and certainly moving forward I think there’s a place for it,” Fisch said.

Slowing USC’s studs

“Dudes are everywhere.”

That’s how Fisch described USC’s personnel, which features 4- and 5-star prospects at basically every position.

First and foremost is wide receiver Drake London, who leads the Pac-12 with 79 receptions and 1,003 yards (Arizona’s top two receivers have combined for 79 catches and 693 yards). London has five games this season with at least 10 catches, including 31 in the past two games, and he averages more than 15 targets per game.

London has 19 catches on contested targets, eight more than the UA has as a team.

“What I can tell you is that you have to know where he is on every play,” Fisch said of London. “He’s gonna catch contested balls. So it’s not like one of those that every catch has it’s just (that) he’s wide open. So you’re gonna have to play through him and play physical with him and and then we’ve got to be able to come up with ways to minimize his impact of the game the best we can.”

USC averages 42 pass attempts and 315.6 passing yards per game, both tops in the Pac-12. Arizona has the second-best pass defense in the league, though its two worst performances have come in the past two games.

“They whip it around pretty good,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said of USC’s passing game.

The Trojans also have a standout running back in Keaontay Ingram, who averages nearly 5.7 yards per carry, but he only gets 14 carries per game in their Air Raid scheme.

On the defensive side, USC is tied for second-fewest sacks in the league with 11 but eight of those have come in the last three games, when it has also logged 15 tackles for loss

“They’ve got big, tall, fast linebackers and defensive linemen,” Fisch said. “Their secondary is very good, safeties are active. Safeties make a bunch of plays. They’re a very aggressive style of defense, Todd Orlando in the past has always been a guy that brings a ton of pressure. And I would expect that from him, and we got to be ready to be able to handle their upfront guys, which has always been a huge thing for USC, and their speed.”

Preventing the big plays, and also getting some

By design, the Air Raid is an offense built around going fast and spreading the ball all over, not always looking for the deep shot. Yet USC is tied for the Pac-12 lead with 39 offensive plays of 20 or more yards, and 33 of those are via the pass.

Arizona, despite its overall improvement on defense, continues to give up too many big plays. Washington had four completions of at least 28 yards last week, including a pair of 51-yard throws, and for the season the Wildcats have yielded 30 plays of 20-plus yards.

Reducing that number will help Arizona’s cause, but so will making some waves of its own on offense.

Fisch noted that Arizona leads the Pac-12 in offensive plays per game (72.4) but it only averages 4.66 yards per play, which is second-worst in the league. The Wildcats have only generated 15 plays of at least 20 yards and just six over 30, both of which are among the bottom three in the country.

“We’re lacking all explosiveness,” Fisch said. “We need to be able to stretch the field, we need to be able to make plays that are bigger than 10-yard gains.”

Fisch said the opportunities have been there, but it requires maximizing the chance and not worrying about messing up.

“When a shot’s called take a shot, when (there’s) a chance to break a tackle, break a tackle,” he said. “You’ve got to be willing to take the chance to do it, first of all. You have to be willing to make a mistake, and not live in a world of fear. You have to have a lot of things that work together. You got to get the route run at the right depth. You got to be detailed in your route. You got to go up and make a play. You can’t have a penalty call back explosive plays. There’s a lot of things that go into it. I’ve been on teams where we’ve led college and pro football in explosive plays. Now I’ve been on this one where we haven’t. I think a lot of it comes down to be willing be able, and then embrace the opportunity to.”

Playing four quarters

The Arizona Wildcats have lost 19 consecutive games, tied for the 20th-longest skid in FBS history. Yet this season they’ve managed to be “in” nearly every game they’ve played, either leading or being within one score in the fourth quarter in five of seven contests.

USC is the exact opposite, at least in terms of making things interesting late in games.

Matt Zemek of TrojansWire noted in our Q&A with him that the Trojans have yet to play a game this season in which either they or their opponent have had the ball in the fourth quarter trailing by one score with a chance to tie or take the lead. Their wins have been by 23, 31 and 23 points and their losses have been an average of 15.8 points.

Considering Arizona’s play this season, that probably means a laugher over the final period, especially since it has been outscored 48-0 over the past four games.

“The last 12 or 13 minutes of games have just completely got away from us,” Fisch said Thursday, doubling down on his comment from Monday that the Wildcats are “playing like 47 minutes, and we’re just picking which 47 we want to play.”