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What to watch for when Arizona football visits No. 9 USC

Last Pac-12 trip to LA

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-usc-trojans-delaura-fifita-singer-barrs-roland-wallace-pac12-2023 Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

From one top-10 opponent to the next.

Arizona hits the road Saturday to take on No. 9 USC, the second consecutive unbeaten opponent it will face. And that could be three in a row if Washington State wins at UCLA this weekend, showing just how tough the middle of the Wildcats’ final Pac-12 schedule is.

“I think we’re the only team in college football that’s playing back-to-back top-10 teams,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Thursday.

The Wildcats (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) are trying to avoid their first losing streak of the season, having fallen 31-24 at home to No. 7 Washington last Saturday. They haven’t beaten USC (5-0, 2-0) since 2012 and last won at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 2009.

Here’s what to watch for when the UA takes on USC for the final time as conference foes:

Noah or JDL?

Fisch said Thursday there was “no change” in Jayden de Laura’s status from earlier in the week, though the junior quarterback did participate in 7-on-7 and individual drills Wednesday. That marked his first practice since injuring his ankle at Stanford on Sept. 23.

“I guess I would say it’s more hopeful than last week at this point in time,” Fisch said.

Both de Laura and redshirt freshman Noah Fifita, who started the loss to Washington and threw for 232 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, are being prepared to start and play against the Cardinal. Fifita has taken “the majority” of the team reps, Fisch said, but noted de Laura’s prior experience makes it so he doesn’t need as many to start if he’s healthy enough to play.

De Laura was 26 of 43 for 380 yards with three TDs and an interception in last year’s 45-37 home loss to USC, adding 54 rushing yards. On the other side was eventual Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, who tossed five TD passes and was 31 of 45 for 411 yards.

The first quarter

USC leads the nation in scoring, at 53.6 points per game, and has outscored its opponents 77-14 in the first quarter this season. That’s not ideal for Arizona, which has been outscored 31-7 in the first 15 minutes with that lone TD coming on the opening drive of the season.

Since then its been 11 consecutive drives without points without points if you only count possessions that begin and end in the first quarter. Factor in ones that start in the first and go into the second and Arizona has been much more effective.

“We’ve scored four touchdowns when we’ve started and had the ball in the first quarter,” Fisch said. “Three of the touchdowns, we’ve gotten the ball in the first quarter but we didn’t score until the second quarter of that drive.”

The Wildcats have scored the first time they’ve had the ball in the second quarter in four of five games, the exception being at Mississippi State when they lost a fumble in the red zone. That game saw the UA turn it over three times in the first, and for the season five of its nine giveaways have come in the opening 15 minutes.

On the flip side, the UA has outscored its opponents in the second, third and fourth quarters this season, also averaging more yards and yards per play over the final 45 minutes.

“t’s a 60 minute game,” Fisch said. “And our goal is to make sure that at the end of the game we find a way to have one more point than the other team.”

Track meet or rock fight?

The fewest number of points scored in a USC game this season is 66, when it demolished Stanford 56-10 on Sept. 9, while last week at Colorado the Trojans won 48-41. Compare that to Arizona, where every game has had 55 or fewer points and games involving the Wildcats have all hit the betting under.

Fisch is an offensive-minded coach, calling plays on that side of the ball and leaving the defense to Johnny Nansen, but he says he’s started to learn that not all games need to be first to 40 (or more).

“We’re not afraid to try outscore somebody offensively, but we’re also not afraid to try to hold them down to a certain number and see if we can get one more point higher than they can,” Fisch said.

Arizona is allowing 19 points per game, almost half as much as in 2022 when it gave up 36.5, and last weekend held Washington to season lows in points, yards, passing yards and yards per play.

“It’s going to come down to playing great defense, it’s going to come down to taking the football away, and it’s going to come down to not having long, tedious drives on their side of the ball,” he said. “And it’s going to come down to probably scoring on 67 to 70 percent of the drives on offense.”

Arizona has scored on 21 of 54 offensive drives, which comes out to less than 40 percent.

Facing old foes

Last year, when USC game to Arizona Stadium, it provided an opportunity for ex-Trojan Hunter Echols to play against his former school. This time around there will be a trio of ex-Wildcats on the other side of the ball, and the potential for that to be a distraction is something Fisch and his staff have spent quite a bit of time this week addressing.

On Monday he told reporters there’s no need to have a “family party” on the field between members of Arizona’s 2022 squad, which includes wide receiver Dorian Singer, defensive lineman Kyon Barrs and cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, all now at USC.

On Thursday, Fisch was more direct about making the game about those ex-Wildcats in any way.

“This has to be about us,” he said. “The message was, decisions were made at the end of the season by certain players. Decisions were made by staff, decisions were made by the program. And we won’t get into why people transferred, and whether people were encouraged or discouraged to transfer.

“And we don’t need to get caught up in the emotions of playing former players or former teammates, because if any of them have any aspirations to be in the National Football League, they will be doing that on a weekly basis. And if that is the case, and they’re going to get wrapped up in the emotion of it, they will be cut from the NFL teams that they play at. I would recommend just going out there and playing really good football. It’s personal, let’s say that. And the team understands that.”

Singer, Barrs and Roland-Wallace combined to start 35 games at Arizona last season. This fall they have four, three and one starts, respectively, with Singer only catching 12 passes for 157 yards and three TDs after leading the Pac-12 in receiving during the regular season in 2022.