USC-Arizona: What to watch

October, 26, 2012
10/26/12
10:13
AM PT
In arguably their toughest game to date, the No. 10 USC Trojans face an intriguing Arizona Wildcats team on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. PT in Tucson.

The Trojans, coming off a blowout home win over Colorado, will face Oregon in a highly anticipated game next week.

Here are 10 things to watch against Arizona:

1. Arizona's explosive offense. Regardless of his quick exit from Michigan and the fallout thereafter, Rich Rodriguez is clearly an elite offensive mind. And his spread schemes have caught on quickly in Tucson. Rodriguez's Arizona team is gaining yards at a prolific pace -- 549 per game, fifth-best in the the nation. His quarterback, the athletic Matt Scott, redshirted last season as a senior under Mike Stoops, a rare move for a player of his caliber. But, man, how lucky has Rodriguez been to have such an experienced, talented quarterback in his arsenal in his first season at a new school? Scott has been the centerpiece of the offense, and everything else has flowed from there. He helps the Wildcats run roughly 85 plays per game, tiring out opposing defenses and forcing teams to make tough substitution decisions.

2. Nice kickoff time. USC coach Lane Kiffin has said it before -- 12:30 is his favorite kickoff time, especially on the road. It allows his players to get home at a reasonable hour so the next day's meetings don't feel like a continuation of gameday. Sure, it'll be hotter in Tucson than it would've been with a night kickoff, but there's another added advantage to the early start: Arizona's rowdy (and close-to-the-field) student section, known as the ZonaZoo, may be too warm to get as loud as they do for night games. Considering USC's well-documented struggles with crowd noise on the road this year, that might be big.

3. Barkley's opportunity. It hasn't come totally out of the blue -- there is certainly a precedent for returning quarterbacks' stock to drop a bit -- but Matt Barkley's 2012 season has not been the overwhelming success some expected. He's had good games against Hawaii, Utah and Colorado, but he hasn't played exceptionally against a good opponent yet. Will last Saturday's record-setting day set the tone for a string of good performances from the senior signal-caller? Perhaps. And it's not like the Wildcats' D is going to shut the Trojans out or anything. It's just a matter of truly exploding. Anything less than 275 or so yards and three touchdowns will be a disappointment in this game, and he really could go for a lot more.

4. Protecting him. Of course, a large reason why Barkley hasn't played exceptionally is because of his line. It's hard to throw deep when you can't sit in the pocket for more than three seconds at a time. With Max Tuerk likely to start at left tackle, maybe there will be significant improvement. But Kiffin and Co. have learned how to make use of other ways to give Barkley time to throw, so this isn't as big a problem as it was a month ago.

5. Defensive rotations. This, on the other hand, might be a real problem. Kiffin has never been one to make extensive use of his second- and third-stringers -- he'll tell you he only really trusts his starting 22 -- so the Trojans' backups often don't get as much on-field time as others across the country. That's started to change a bit last year and more this year, as the USC staff realized it needed to develop depth, but it's still not a strong point. Kiffin's idea to rotate defensive guys in last week against Colorado, mimicking what defending Arizona's offense will require, might end up looking like a genius move by early Saturday evening.

6. Underrated running back. Quick -- who do you think has gained more yards for scrimmage this season, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey or USC's Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal, combined? The answer is, surprisingly, the former. Carey, the talented sophomore, is already approaching 1,000 yards on the ground this year for the Wildcats and has also been a legitimate receiving threat . He's gained 1,064 rushing and receiving yards, whereas the Trojans' McNeal and Redd have totaled 957. Obviously that's a product of the opportunities he's been given in Arizona's fast-paced offense, but that might not be as big a reason as you think: Carey's still gaining a respectable 5.4 yards per carry and a very respectable 10.1 yards per catch.

7. Memories of 2009. Remember the moment when Pete Carroll's final season at USC officially went off the rails? It came against this team, in the last game of the regular season. The Trojans came in reeling at 8-3 and ranked No. 18 in the country and produced a pitiful 282-yard offensive output. Barkley was quoted as saying the team's energy level was off from kickoff. "I don't know why we're putting ourselves in bad situations," he said then. Not that anyone's expecting it to, but that obviously can't happen Saturday.

8. Close games since '07. Here's an interesting fact: Every one of the last five games between these two teams has been decided by seven points or less. Arizona won that 2009 game by four, the Trojans won by seven last year, by three in 2010 and then by seven in 2007 and 2008. Does that necessarily mean that USC won't blow Arizona out? No. What the squads did against each other four and five years ago doesn't mean much to this year's teams. But don't be surprised if you see another close game.

9. Oregon. OK, so this isn't exactly about tomorrow's game -- but it's sort of gotten to the point of the college football season that resembles September in the major leagues, in that teams are starting to scoreboard watch. Scoreboard watching could get pretty brutal at Arizona Stadium on Saturday. Oregon kicks off against Colorado 30 minutes before the Trojans and Wildcats, and the Ducks could easily be up by three or four touchdowns in that time. As long as USC tops Arizona, next week's game will be one of the most talked-about matchups of the year.

10. A prediction. Much like recent history would suggest, this game should be close. USC's offense won't have a ton of trouble putting up points, but the defense could struggle with adjusting to Arizona's attack. There's only so much preparation you can get done against Colorado and your own scout team. Monte Kiffin has proven adept at making defensive adjustments, though, so improvement's not out of the question. And going through some adversity against the spread this week will probably end up helping USC against Oregon. So, the Wildcats could take an early lead, but expect the Trojans to surpass them later in the game -- maybe with a good third quarter, finally -- and win by a small margin. USC 38, Arizona 35.

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