Arizona played an unbeaten Top 10 team within one score this past weekend, and now it gets to do so again but on the road at USC.
The Trojans sit at No. 9 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 but have slipped a spot each of the past two polls. They’ve also won 10 in a row over the Wildcats (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) and feature a trio of former UA starters on their roster.
To better understand this USC team, we reached out to Matt Zemek of TrojansWire.com for some insight. Here are his firm answers to our soft questions:
USC is off to a 5-0 start for the second year in a row under Lincoln Riley, but the last two wins (at ASU and Colorado) seemed a little shaky. What have been the biggest issues keeping the Trojans from dominating like they did in the first three games?
Matt Zemek: “The first thing to point out is that San Jose State and especially Nevada and Stanford aren’t very good. USC finally encountered a higher skill level against Colorado, and to a lesser extent against Arizona State. It’s not as though USC was challenged in any of those first three games. The Trojans went on the road and were both uncomfortable and unprepared for ASU. Against Colorado, they got bored and undisciplined in the second half after leading 34-7 and then 48-21.
“What are the issues holding this team back? G-R-I-N-C-H. We really don’t need to make this any more complicated than it needs to be. Imagine if Lincoln Riley and USC had Jim Leonhard as defensive coordinator. Imagine if Riley had any of several quality defensive minds at the helm. We probably aren’t having this conversation.”
Caleb Williams is making it hard not to think he’ll be the first Heisman Trophy winner to repeat since Archie Griffin. Is he better than a year ago, and is there anything about his game that Arizona could potentially expose?
“You follow ASU closely if only because you want to scout the Sun Devils and make sure you beat the snot out of them at the end of the year. Because you’re always keeping track of the enemy, you would know—having watched the ASU-USC game—that Caleb threw two passes in that game which should have been picked. He threw an interception against Colorado. He still gets a little reckless and careless at times.
“He is better than a year ago. We haven’t seen a true clunker from him the way we did at Oregon State in 2022. We don’t expect USC to score fewer than 30 points in any game it plays this year. USC scored only 17 versus Oregon State last season. It’s all about capitalizing on those occasional moments of recklessness. Arizona has to catch an interception if Caleb puts the ball on a plate. Arizona State sucks, as you folks in Tucson know well, so naturally the Devils didn’t catch interceptions when they were attainable. The UA needs to pounce when those opportunities arise.”
For as explosive as USC’s pass game is, MarShawn Lloyd averages more than 8 yards per carry. What makes the South Carolina transfer so successful?
“He can do it all. He runs with power, he has turn-the-corner speed, he is shifty, he blocks, he catches. He is well-rounded and is a good teammate. He isn’t a one-trick pony. He has a developed game and a great attitude. He has been spectacular thus far. The Trojans need to feed him more when they have 14-point second-half leads. That’s how they can keep their own Alex Grinch-coached defense off the field and salt games away earlier rather than later.”
The Trojans picked up three former Arizona starters from the transfer portal. How have wide receiver Dorian Singer, defensive lineman Kyon Barrs and cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace fared so far?
“Singer made tremendous catches against USC last year, as you know, prompting Caleb Williams to ask Lincoln Riley if USC could grab Singer in the portal. However, while Singer is great at making contested catches, he is not getting open regularly. He is not separating from defenders. He has been a relative disappointment thus far.
“USC fans want to see a lot more of Kyon Barrs. He needs to be more of a presence on the defensive line and get more reps. Bear Alexander, Solomon Byrd and De’Jon Benton have been really good, but other D-linemen haven’t been as productive, Barrs being one. USC needs all, not some, of its defensive linemen to play well in the same game at the same time. That’s how the Trojans will win the Pac-12. They’re far short of that standard.
“Roland-Wallace came up with an interception against Colorado, but he remains part of a secondary which got shredded in the second half. Is he ready to ball out against Oregon and Washington in November? We don’t know.”
USC’s defense has looked suspect of late, particularly when it comes to stopping big plays and missed tackles. Is this a scheme issue or just bad personnel?
“It’s a little of everything. It’s hard to say that Grinch has guys in the right positions. They weren’t against Colorado. It’s hard to say the personnel is up to the task when so many mistakes continue to be made and so many points continue to be allowed. It’s no one thing. It’s everything. If it was just one thing—one specific, targeted facet of performance—which was lacking, it would be fixed and USC would be in great shape. The problem is that USC’s issues are pervasive, but it all comes down to Grinch being a mediocre coordinator. Jim Leonhard wouldn’t be scuffling like this.”
Prediction time. Can Arizona win at the Coliseum for the first time since 2009 or will USC remain unbeaten and leave the Pac-12 with 11 straight wins over the Wildcats? Give us a score pick.
“USC might look ahead to Notre Dame, so this won’t be a total blowout. Arizona will score some points, just not enough. USC 45, Arizona 30.”