Arizona is refreshed and ready for the remainder of the 2022 season after getting a much-needed week off from the college football grind. But so too did its opponent, 10th-ranked USC, which is in town Saturday for Homecoming.
The Trojans (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) lost 43-42 at Utah before their bye, severely damaging their chances to compete for a playoff spot. They’re still right in the mix for the conference title game, since this year it will pit the teams with the top two records and not division winners.
USC has won nine in a row over Arizona (3-4, 1-3) and hasn’t lost in Tucson since 2012, when the Wildcats pulled off a 39-36 win in Rich Rodriguez’s first season.
To better understand the Trojans, we reached out to Matt Zemek of Trojans Wire. Here are his thoughtful answers to our blithe questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: USC made arguably the biggest hire during the offseason when it poached Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, and that led to a huge haul from the NCAA transfer portal. Other than all those new players, what’s been the biggest difference between Riley’s Trojans and the programs of Clay Helton and others?
Matt Zemek: “Third quarters. USC was an atrocious third-quarter team under Helton. Under Riley, it’s a 180-degree shift. USC has been consistently winning third quarters this season. The Trojans generally aren’t allowing opponents to score much in second halves. They shut out Washington State in the second half. They allowed only one scoring drive to Arizona State after halftime. They clamped down on Oregon State and kept that game close enough for the offense to win in the final 90 seconds.
“One year ago, the third quarter was a time when the USC defense basically waved the white flag. A 10-point halftime deficit became a 24-point deficit in a heartbeat. Fans left the Coliseum and an opponent played a garbage-time fourth quarter with a hefty lead. This coaching staff actually makes halftime adjustments, the one exception being the Utah game, when Alex Grinch simply couldn’t figure out how to cover Dalton Kincaid.”
Caleb Williams has only one interception against 19 touchdowns, with three 300-yard efforts, but he also has a pair of games where he threw for below 200 yards and completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes. Is he living up to expectations, and why has there been some inconsistency?
“Oregon State defensive coordinator Trent Bray is having a great year with the Beavers. Oregon State simply had a great plan and executed it brilliantly. Caleb Williams was bad in that game (even though he led a clutch game-winning TD drive). He hasn’t had another bad game. He will go through brief lulls where he completes just 1 of 7 passes. That has happened a few times. USC and Lincoln Riley forget that they have Travis Dye and a really good running game. Riley does get pass-happy at times; it’s not a big problem given the weapons at his disposal, but there is a time to lean on the run game and chew clock so that the USC defense stays fresh and doesn’t have to play extended minutes.
“Caleb Williams has definitely lived up to expectations. His only loss was a game in which he was brilliant, scoring 42 points in Rice-Eccles Stadium in a night game. Throwing only one interception is a sign of his maturity as a sophomore who didn’t even play a full season as an Oklahoma freshman last year under Lincoln Riley. USC can’t ask for much more from him.”
USC is second in the Pac-12 in sacks and tackles for loss, its forced a league-best 16 turnovers and leads the nation in turnover margin (+15). Is this a function of Alex Grinch’s scheme, the personnel, or both?
“It’s less about the scheme, more about Grinch making good halftime adjustments and developing players. The Arizona State game (USC won 42-25 after leading 21-17 at halftime) is a good example. USC played a subpar defensive first half. Grinch attacked a lot more in the third quarter, and the Trojans started making sacks and other negative plays after a passive start.
“In terms of player development, look at Ceyair Wright. He has dabbled in acting and has been caught up in the Hollywood world of glamour and celebrity. Under Clay Helton, he was adrift as a football player. Under Grinch, he has become a solid cover corner and a notable reason for the secondary’s improvement this season. Another good player development story is Calen Bullock, who has been very dependable at safety. USC has not been beaten down the field for big pass plays on many occasions this year. Dalton Kincaid is the exception to the rule. This is an important detail heading into the Arizona game. USC has to prevent Jayden de Laura from hitting vertical strikes. It’s probably the Trojans’ biggest single key to victory.”
Which players on the defensive side of the ball should Arizona fans be most aware of?
“Tuli Tuipulotu got three sacks against Washington State on Oct. 8. He has seven sacks this season. He’s a front-runner for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Solomon Byrd is an underrated defensive lineman who doesn’t get the publicity due to Tuipulotu’s excellence.
“You know about Eric Gentry, given his time at Arizona State. He got injured in the Utah game on Oct. 15, but the injury was not severe. He and Tuipulotu have been the two best players on this defense. The third-best player on this defense is Mekhi Blackmon, the transfer from Colorado. He locks down his assignment on the perimeter and forces quarterbacks to throw to the other side of the field, or to a running back or tight end matched against a linebacker. He relieves pressure for the other 10 USC defenders on the field.”
Prediction time: Can Arizona pull off a major upset and keep alive hopes of becoming bowl eligible, or will USC beat the Wildcats for the 10th time in a row? Give us a score pick.
“Arizona can score. USC, though, should be able to score more. Trojans 49, Wildcats 38.”