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Arizona’s offense shows promise in loss at USC

arizona-wildcats-usc-trojans-football-pac12-losing-streak-fisch-plummer-joiner-2021 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The losing streak has reached another milestone, but there may be renewed hope that Arizona could turn things around soon enough.

The Wildcats lost 41-34 at USC on Saturday night, their 20th consecutive loss, but in doing so had by far their best offensive performance of the Jedd Fisch era. They more doubled their season scoring average, topping the 20-point mark for the first time in 11 games, with both Will Plummer and Jamarye Joiner showing the ability to move the offense consistently, and fought back from down 21 at the half to be within one score twice in the fourth quarter.

Yet it never felt like Arizona (0-8, 0-5 Pac-12) had a legitimate chance to pull off the upset because its defense, which had been a strength most of the season, had no answer for USC’s playmakers most of the night.

USC (4-4, 3-3) gained a season-high 517 yards, including 360 in the first half, against a UA defense that came in allowing 357.6 yards per game. The Trojans alternated quarterbacks but it didn’t matter if it was Kedon Slovis or Jaxson Dart, who combined for 301 yards and four touchdowns, and USC also ran for 216 yards with Keaontay Ingram going for 186 yards and a score.

Arizona also committed 12 penalties for 130 yards, the most penalty yardage in five years, with many of them coming at critical moments that either stalled offensive drives or extended ones for USC.

“This was another great example of being there but not over the hump,” Fisch said afterward.

Plummer started at QB and had by far the best game of his career, throwing for 264 yards on 20-of-35 passing and also rushing for 31 yards including a 16-yard TD on 3rd and goal. Joiner was 2 of 4 for 75 yards including a 73-yard TD pass to Tayvian Cunningham on the Wildcats’ first drive.

Fisch said Joiner suffered a knee injury during the game but does not it expect to be a season-ending injury.

Arizona trailed 35-14 at the half despite averaging 8.8 yards per play in the opening two quarters. The Wildcats got drove inside the USC 30 on their first possession of the second half only to do their usual backslide, with a penalty on a completed double pass and a third-down sack leading to a missed 51-yard field goal try by Lucas Havrisik.

But two plays later the UA caught a break when Anthony Pandy stepped in front of a short pass and returned the interception 37 yards for a TD. It was Arizona’s first pick-six since Scottie Young Jr. did so against Cal in 2018 and pulled the Wildcats within 35-21 with 10:44 left in the third.

After USC kicked a red-zone field goal to make it 38-21 with 6:48 left in the third, Arizona cut the deficit to 10 on a 16-yard TD run by Plummer with 12:50 left. The Wildcats kicked their own short field goal, a 25-yarder by Tyler Loop, to make it 38-31 with 6:04 remaining, marking the sixth time this season they’ve led or been within one score in the fourth quarter.

Arizona’s defense played much better in the second half, allowing only two field goals and forcing three punts, but it couldn’t get that one last stop. A 45-yard run by Ingram got USC into field goal range, and Alex Stadthaus’ 40-yard kick with 3:19 left gave the Trojans insurance points.

Tyler Loop kicked a 40-yard field goal with 1:26 left to get it within seven again but USC recovered the onside kick.

Arizona’s defense started off very poorly, giving up touchdowns on the first two drives. The first USC score—a 3-yard Ingram run—was aided by two big penalties, including a targeting ejection against safety Jaxen Turner, his second this season, and that opened things up for the Trojans to go deep for a 62-yard pass from Slovis to Gary Bryant Jr.

In between the Wildcats scored on a 73-yard TD pass from Joiner to Cunningham, Arizona’s longest play of the season. Cunningham finished with 116 yards on three catches

Arizona’s next two drives ended on third-down sacks, with the offensive line unable to block for more than a second or two. The second of those drives had promise after linebacker Anthony Pandy ran for 32 yards on a fake punt, but once the Wildcats got close to the red zone they started moving backward thanks to a holding call and the sack.

Drake London scored the first of his two TDs on a 2-yard pass from freshman Dart midway through the second quarter, then scored on a 6-yard pass with 4:16 left in the second to make it 28-7. But London appeared to injure his right ankle when UA cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace landed on it and London was carted off before the extra point attempt.

On Arizona’s next drive, Plummer connected with Cunningham on what would have been a 75-yard TD, but Cunningham’s helmet was ripped off by Isaac Stuart-Taylor at the USC 40 and the play was blown dead at that point.

Before you ask, that’s a college football rule, not a Pac-12 one:

The Wildcats still managed to score a few plays later, with Michael Wiley scoring on a 1-yard run right after Alex Lines caught a 24-yard pass.

USC made it 5 for 6 on first-half drives shortly after that, with Slovis hitting Bryant on a 15-yard TD pass with 32 seconds left.

Arizona returns home to face Cal on Saturday. The 12 p.m. MST kickoff at Arizona Stadium will serve as the backdrop for Homecoming.