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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Preview: Wildcats and Trojans clash in key conference matchup

Carmen Valencia

The Arizona Wildcats celebrate a late touchdown against USC.

This Saturday, the Arizona Wildcats battle the University of Southern California Trojans in a major Pac-12 Conference South match-up. Both teams have a conference win under their belts already, and the winner of this weekend’s match-up will take an early lead in the race to the Pac-12 Championship. 

Despite both teams underachieving through the first four weeks of this season, there are plenty of enticing story lines to monitor.

What to watch for:

The main event will be the battle of the quarterbacks.

A year ago, the Trojans’ defense bottled up Khalil Tate in the first half. They were lucky to avoid a frantic second-half comeback by the dual-threat signal-caller. Tate electrified last November’s clash in Los Angeles, and he will look to do so again in Tucson.

Unlike last year, the visiting Trojans aren’t an offensive powerhouse. True freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels has made a valiant effort to fill the shoes of now-New York Jets franchise quarterback, Sam Darnold, but the transition hasn’t been as dynamic as expected. 

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In four games, Daniels has connected on 58 percent of his throws for 1,060 yards. He’s tossed four touchdown passes versus three interceptions. His favorite target thus far has been fellow true-freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.

To put Daniels’ underwhelming start into comparison, Tate – who has truthfully only made impactful contributions in one game, against Southern Utah – boasts twice as many touchdown passes coming on nearly 30 fewer attempts. 

USC and Arizona have routinely committed to stretching the field this season, despite neither team’s passing attack being their strength. 

In 2017, this highly touted matchup featured an aggressive and athletic Trojans defense swarming to the football. Tate generated next to nothing on the ground in the first half and discovered that running room likely wouldn’t become available until he found his rhythm through the air. 

This season, under the guidance of a new head coach and offensive coordinator, Tate has relied more on his arm than his legs. The one-time Heisman hopeful has in part been slowed down by a lower-leg injury but is doing his best to spread the ball around to a wealth of targets. 

Arizona's Khalil Tate (14) jukes to avoid USC defenders on Nov. 4, 2017 at the Arizona Football Stadium in Tucson, Ariz.
Arizona’s Khalil Tate (14) jukes to avoid USC defenders on Nov. 4, 2017 at the Arizona Football Stadium in Tucson, Ariz.

Tate may not be as effective toting the rock in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense as he was in former head coach Richard Rodriguez’, but that doesn’t mean the Wildcats rushing attack has to suffer. 

Last weekend in Corvallis, Arizona’s offense put together its best performance to date. Jumping out to a 7-0 lead early, the Wildcats trounced the Oregon State Beavers between the tackles, much like they did all of last season.  

If Arizona’s offensive line drives off the football and succeeds in engaging USC’s linebackers, the Wildcats’ talented backfield will wear down the Trojans defense, therefore controlling the flow of the game. 

Arizona’s time of possession is solely dependent on Mazzone’s unit being able to establish relevance on the ground – the Wildcats passing attack functions primarily via chunk plays, and the defense has yet to find its identity. 

After an improved performance in the box versus Oregon State, defensive coordinator Marcel Yates’ defensive bunch is beginning to trend in the right direction. Squaring off against the Trojans offense will be nothing like last Saturday, though. 

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The Wildcats’ secondary could face a huge test early in this game. The Trojans will likely attack Arizona’s back end from the get-go, trying to decipher whether or not the Wildcats have skilled enough athletes to stick with their receivers in coverage. 

As long as Arizona prevents the big-play on defense, the Trojans offense will have to commit to its rushing attack – something USC would like to do but has steered away from in its two losses. 

The going won’t get any easier for Arizona’s defense if the ‘Cats are able to disrupt Daniels’ chemistry with St. Brown and company, but at least then they’re in a position to load the box and aim to keep the score to a minimum. 

Keys to the game:

Come Saturday night, Arizona should incorporate speedy receivers Shun Brown and Tony Ellison as early and often as possible. Tate is at best in the pocket when he’s able to locate Brown or Ellison on intermediate routes down the field. 

The Wildcats will need to utilize their top pass-catchers to keep the Trojans defense on their heels, but the offense’s primary focus has to be stringing together one first-down after another on the ground. 

J.J. Taylor cemented his role as Arizona’s lead back last week, rushing for 284 yards on 27 carries. His counterpart in the backfield, Gary Brightwell, has also flashed moments of rare vision and agility. Arizona will need both of them at their best once again.

Although it doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score, the Wildcats will earn themselves extra points the longer they can keep the Trojans defense on the field. 

Increased time of possession will also give Arizona’s defense a chance to gather themselves on the sideline and communicate with their coaches what they’re seeing between the hashes. 

Final thought:

Arizona got off to a rocky start in Kevin Sumlin’s first year in the desert, but the Wildcats have a prime opportunity to take a notable lead in the Pac-12 South standings by way of a win this weekend. 

Follow Rob Kleifield on Twitter

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