After three straight weeks of match-ups where styles and personnel of opponents left them with very little chance to even compete against USC, an interesting challenge arises.
The Arizona Wildcats are an improved team from last season, and their huge win over Cal last week helped them to forge a four way tie for first in the Pac-10. The victory finally gave them a win over a credible opponent prior to conquests of Idaho, Toledo, UCLA, and Washington. Still, this team has been inconsistent enough to lose to New Mexico and Stanford. Could the Cal game signal that the Cats have turned the corner? Should USC be worried about this one a conference road game against a team that seemed to have some balance? Here's a look at the match-up.
Arizona Offense vs. USC Defense
The Wildcats experimented with Texas Tech's Red Gun offense last season, and had some success. They scored about 12 more points per game than they did in 2006, and QB Willie Tuitama thrived in the system after struggling the year before. It allowed him to get the ball out quicker so that he didn't have to take such a beating. The problem was that the defense wound up taking a step back because the offense was feast or famine, and the Wildcats only moment of success against the conference's elite came at home against Oregon after Dennis Dixon went out with a knee injury.
This season, the Cats have incorporated more I and ace sets without the use of the shotgun, and have been rewarded with a better running game. In the Cal game, they also used some of the fly sweep principles (wide receiver motioning across the formation and sometimes taking the handoff) that Oregon State used well against the Trojans to freeze the linebackers. I think you'll see a lot of that against SC.
They also had a running back emerge against Cal, the diminutive Keola Antolin, a true freshman. Antolin is a little quick guy who has cutback ability just like OSU's Jacquizz Rogers. I don't think Antolin is as good as Rodgers, but he is comparable. There's a question of how many carries he gets though. Nic Grigsby had carried the load this season before the Cal game, and I wonder if Arizona wasn't trying to get his feet wet to combat a perceived USC weakness. Either way, this Arizona team is much more balanced that those of years past. So far, they doubled their rushing output from last season, and they're up to about 160 yards per game.
That makes Tuitama all the more effective. He is second in pass efficiency only to Mark Sanchez in the conference. His accuracy has improved, and he has a TD to INT ratio of five to one, which is awesome. He is one of the elite QBs in the Pac-10, and has improved every season that he's been in Tucson. He has a pretty strong arm, and he has enough mobility to elude the rush. At the same time, only UCLA and Washington State have given up more sacks than Arizona.
What the Wildcats have managed to do this year compared to last season, besides trusting and utilizing their running game more, is to disguise what they are doing more. Last season, when they lined up in the I, they ran the ball. This season, they use the play action more effectively, and they like to throw it deep out of the I. Last season, they almost exclusively passed the ball out of their shotgun sets. This season, they will run inside and outside zone out of the gun. This makes them tougher to defend.
They can be a little streaky on offense though. In the first quarter against Cal, they rolled up 125 yards, only to stall with 54 yards in the second quarter. In the third quarter, they had 207 yards, but only 18 in the fourth. That signals an offense that is tough to get a handle on at first, but that teams can adjust to.
Arizona Defense vs. USC Offense
This to me is the interesting match-up of the game. The question here: does this defense's efficiency correlate with his gaudy numbers? Arizona is second in the conference in scoring defense at 18.1 points per game. They are second in total defense at 285 yards per game. They have been very stout against the pass and not as stout against the run. But when you put the numbers together, they are in the top 30 in the nation in scoring and total defense. That's pretty impressive.
But here's the problem. Arizona's first six opponents are ranked 103rd, 97th, 95th, 86th, 85th, and 78th in the country in total offense. Cal is ranked 31st, and they rolled up over 400 total yards. In my opinion, the Arizona group is a good one, but they haven't been tested much. They have faced three out of conference teams with poor offenses, and three of the four worst offenses in the conference. Despite giving up a lot of yards to Cal, they won the game in the third quarter by blitzing more than I've seen them blitz at any time since Mike Stoops took over in Tucson. It worked wonders against Cal and the statue that is Nate Longshore. How well it would work against USC remains to be seen.
In the past, Stoops has not released the hounds against the Trojans. He has preferred to play it safer: keeping safeties back, giving good cushion but allowing his corners to aggressively close on short routes, putting the strong side linebacker on the line but keeping the other two backers back, keeping stunting to a minimum. Against Cal, Stoops threw caution to the wind, and was rewarded. The players seemed to prefer that style of play in interviews after the game, but I doubt that's what we'll see against USC. Stoops knows that with Sanchez at QB, blitzing and bringing up safeties is not the way to go. It's a recipe to get torched with the long ball, especially off play action.
In past games, Stoops has played bend but don't break against SC. In his early seasons, he was able to make the Trojans look silly for short periods of time, but not over the long haul, giving up 49 and 42 points and loads of yards. With John David Booty and a young Mark Sanchez at the helm in the last two seasons, his defense played very well, holding USC to 20 points in two losses. In those games, Arizona gave up 350 rushing yards, but took away the big passing plays. I expect them to try this again, despite what they did in the Cal game. Too much gambling makes for a butt kicking against the Trojans. Stoops is a defensive mind, and he has watched the Oregon and Oregon State games to compare and contrast. I doubt that he lets a second half of success against Cal tempt him into throwing away the best gameplan for success on Saturday.
Obviously, the Wildcats are very confident after a big win, and they feel that they can win the conference this season. They believe that the Cal game validated them after a crucial loss at home to Stanford. They are definitely a far better team than they were last season, and have the ability to give the Trojans fits, especially on the road. They must feel that they are due as well, because they are one of only two teams (ASU is the other) to not beat USC in the Pete Carroll era. They know that this is as good a chance as they have had. If the Trojans have one of their patented slow start, high mistake road games, Arizona can definitely win the game.
I'm betting against it though. Forget the numbers. This team is not as good defensively as Oregon State. Their front seven is average, and their run defense numbers, which aren't great, are inflated because they have played teams like Idaho, Toledo, UCLA, and Washington, who can not run their way out of a wet paper bag. I think the Trojans will show some patience early, running the ball more in the first half than they usually do, because I don't expect Arizona will show eight man fronts as they did against Cal. The Wildcats don't have natural pass rushers as Oregon State does. It's the reason that they only have 11 sacks in seven games. I don't think we'll see quite the offensive firepower that we saw against teams like Oregon or WSU. It will be a more deliberate style of football.
On the other side of the ball, it's really simple for Arizona. They run the ball well or they lose. In losses to New Mexico and Stanford, they averaged 72 yards per game. In the UCLA game, which was tight until the fourth quarter, they managed only 111 yards rushing. They broke through against Cal with Antolin, and I suspect he will get most of the carries early. But I also suspect that the Trojans will be less likely to flounder for a half against that type of running game as they did against Oregon State. Plus, I just don't think that Arizona will be as efficient running the ball the way that Oregon State did, because their style includes a lot of shotgun running and lots of running with the fullback leading, which tips your hand some. Finally, I just don't think their offensive line is that good, definitely not as good as OSU's.
I think Arizona, as usual, will struggle to run the ball against the Trojans. They have rushed for six yards in the last two games against USC! They will do a much better job than they did the last two seasons, but they will not crack 100 yards. Without the ability to run the ball against a top flite defense, Arizona will throw the ball 45+ times, and that's not how you beat SC. The Trojans will do a lot of blitzing as they have done for most of the season against passing teams, and it will result in havoc, which means more turnovers for the team that has forced the most in the Pac-10. Unless USC matches those turnovers on offense, and I don't think they will with a QB that is more in a groove than he was after a stilted week of practice before the ASU game due to the knee injury, Arizona will get buried.
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