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What to watch for when Arizona hosts No. 10 USC for Homecoming

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-usc-trojans-homecoming-pac12-stats-turnovers-2022 Arizona Athletics

It’s Homecoming at Arizona, and another big crowd is expected when the Wildcats take on No. 10 USC on Saturday afternoon.

Former UA cornerback Antoine Cason spoke to the team after Wednesday’s practice, with ex-Wildcat great Rob Gronkowski attending Thursday’s workout as part of his many team-related activities this weekend including serving as honorary captain and leading the Wildcat Walk two hours before kickoff.

Homecoming provided Arizona’s only win last season, a 10-3 victory over Cal that snapped a 20-game losing streak. But this time around the challenge will be much greater, as USC (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) has won nine in a row in the series and will bring another explosive offense to the field.

Here’s what to watch for when the UA and USC tangle in Tucson:

Post-bye adjustments

Both Arizona and USC had last weekend off, which provided each team with some much-needed rest for the stretch run. It also means extra time to prepare for this contest, which in Arizona’s case meant a “Bonus Sunday” practice that was devoted to the opponent rather than cleaning up things from the previous day’s game.

Though the sample size is still on the small side, the numbers dictate the Wildcats look better when UA coach Jedd Fisch has extra time to prepare for an opponent. The first game of the Fisch era, a 24-16 loss to BYU in Las Vegas, was one of the most impressive performances of that season, and the 38-20 win at San Diego State to open the 2022 campaign was even better.

In those cases, the UA could devote as much time to the tail end of training camp on that first contest, while during the season the preparation time is drastically reduced except for coming off a bye. The post-bye game in 2021, a 34-16 home loss to UCLA, saw the Wildcats leading midway through the third quarter and it was a one-score game before Jordan McCloud suffered season-ending ankle and knee injuries.

With the bye coming after seven games in 2022, compared to four in 2021, the time off also has allowed Arizona to reassess its personnel. As a result, freshman Ephesian Prysock is listed as the co-starter at one cornerback position with sophomore Treydan Stukes, who just hasn’t looked the same since coming back from a bone bruise.

Sam Langi is listed as the starter at left guard, a sign Josh Donovan isn’t fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered on special teams at Washington two weeks ago. Additionally, Tia Savea—who has missed the last two games—is now listed third at defensive tackle, which could mean he’s being considered for a redshirt.

Savea has played four games, the limit before losing a year of eligibility. Same goes for cornerback Isaiah Rutherford, who started in place of Stukes the first two games but hasn’t played the last three.

Another track meet

Four Pac-12 schools average 40-plus points per game. Arizona has already faced two of them, allowing 49 apiece to Oregon and Washington (as well as Cal, which has managed only 43 points in its other three conference games).

USC scores 40.4 points per game, and last time out lost a 43-42 heartbreaker at Utah despite gaining 556 yards. The Trojans gain 7.02 yards per play, have a quarterback (Oklahoma transfer Caleb Williams) who has thrown only one interception against 19 touchdowns, and also has the second-leading rusher in the conference in Oregon transfer Travis Dye.

All that spells doom for a UA defense that is near the bottom in the conference (and in many cases all of FBS) in every statistical category.

The Wildcats’ offense has shown to be potent, particularly through the air with its 5th-ranked passing attack, and when USC isn’t forcing turnovers (more on that later) it has been vulnerable to big plays. That means all the ingredients are there for a shootout, hence the over/under (76.5, per DraftKings Sportsbook) being nearly a TD larger than any other FBS game.

Would Fisch consider slowing down his team’s pace on offense, in order to limit possessions and also give his defense more rest? Unlikely, he said.

“It’s not like we’re just on the field, off the field on offense,” he said. “We really don’t want to not play our game. Our game is an up-tempo game. It’s not every play is an up-tempo (one) … but I don’t really see us being a team that’s gonna just try to grind it out and say maybe we could eliminate a possession. I think that could hurt us more than help us.”

Biletnikoff battle

There are six Pac-12 players on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given to college football’s top pass catcher. Half of them will be in action at Arizona Stadium.

Arizona has two Biletnikoff contenders in Jacob Cowing and Dorian Singer, the latter getting added to the list earlier this month, while USC’s receiving corps is led by reigning Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison. Addison, who won the award in 2021 while at Pitt, is tied with Cowing for the Pac-12 lead in TD catches (seven).

Cowing is first in receptions (53) and second in yards (737), while Singer is fourth in both catches and yards.

And with USC’s Williams and Arizona’s Jayden de Laura combining for six 300-yard passing games (de Laura has a trio of 400-yard efforts) this figures to be the most pass-happy game in the series since the last time the UA won in 2012. That 39-36 Wildcat victory featured USC’s Marqise Lee—who won the Biletnikoff that year—catching 16 passes for 345 yards and two TDs and Arizona’s Austin Hill hauling in 10 catches for 259 yards.

Turnover tales

USC has the best turnover margin in the country, at plus-15. It has given the ball away once all season, while its defense has forced 16 takeaways, 12 of those being interceptions.

Fisch attributes some of the Trojans’ turnover luck to the length they have across the board on defense. Starting Mike linebacker Eric Gentry, a transfer from ASU, is 6-foot-6 and has a pick along with fellow LBs Ralen Goforth and Shane Lee. Eight of the team’s 19 credited pass breakups are by linebackers or defensive linemen.

“They’re fast, and they’re long, and I would say that combination is a lot of times what causes interceptions,” Fisch said. “They play a lot of zone coverages, almost primarily a zone coverage team, which allows you to have eyes on the quarterback, and they move really well together to be able to get one guy in the throwing lane and then one guy be able to make the play.”

Arizona is minus-4 in turnovers, collecting seven and giving it away 11 times. The Wildcats have forced only one takeaway in Pac-12 play and have three games with three giveaways, but last time out at Washington they were turnover free.

The UA doesn’t have the same length as USC on defense so it will have to find other ways to disrupt that offense.

“We have to put pressure on the quarterback,” Fisch said. “The quarterback can’t feel as if he has all day. He’s too good. He’s too good just to give him a lot of time back there. We’ve got to find a way to cause some disruption in their timing, really overall as an offense.”

The third quarter

Arizona has been outscored by 23 points this season, but it has a 10-point edge on its opponents in the first half and is up 34-28 in the fourth quarter. The third period, on the other hand …

Opponents have outscored the UA 73-34 in the 15 minutes following halftime, 63-23 in Pac-12 play. In its three conference losses, the third quarter margin (minus-43) represents almost 80 percent of the final margin.

Compare that to USC, which has allowed only one third-quarter score, a red-zone TD to Utah in its loss two weeks ago. That’s a huge improvement from a year ago, when the Trojans gave up 94 points in the third.

The first few minutes of the second half has been particularly disastrous for Arizona. Washington built its first 2-score lead just 46 seconds into the third, Oregon made it 35-13 less than four minutes into the second half and Cal took the lead for good on its opening drive after halftime.