Arizona heads to the Los Angeles Coliseum for USC’s first ever non-Thanksgiving game ever on a Thursday night.
Not only does that present some intrigue, but the Wildcats will be taking on a Trojans’ team that has undergone a coaching change, as the Lane Kiffin era recently came to an end.
Although it is difficult to know what USC will bring to the table offensively, we still have a pretty good idea. Much of USC’s success this season has revolved around the running game and it is difficult to believe anything will change on Thursday.
Sophomore Tre Madden has emerged as the go-to back, as evidenced by his 110 carries for 583 yards and three touchdowns this season. Madden has four 100-yard games and was the first back at USC to start the season with three consecutive 100-yard games since Marcus Allen in 1981.
In addition to Madden, The Trojans will call on Javorius Allen, who has 14 attempts for 78 yards. Freshman Justin Davis will also likely get more an opportunity and may be the best back USC has right now. He has only carried the ball 42 times, but has 311 yards and five touchdowns.
The real wildcard among the backs is Silas Redd, who has yet to play this season due to an injury. It is unknown how much action Redd will see, but it is a good bet that he will get carries.
Redd had three 100-yard games for USC last season and at the very least is a player that Arizona needs to respect when he is behind the quarterback.
Speaking of quarterback, Cody Kessler will get the start for the Trojans. Kessler has completed 63 percent of his passes for 832 yards to go along with six touchdowns and four interceptions. He takes a lot of criticism, but most of that has to do with consistency.
Kessler did struggle a bit against Hawaii, Utah State, and Washington but was spectacular against Boston College and did just fine against ASU.
The signal caller may not be the type of player to single-handedly beat Arizona, but he is also adequate enough to not make mistakes and help manage the game.
Kessler is going to be with one less weapon on Thursday, as wide receiver Marqise Lee is unlikely to play. If Lee does play, it is a major boost for the Trojans, but his absence is more likely and damaging to the offense’s chances of success. That is not to say that USC can’t score without him, but it is definitely going to be more difficult.
Sophomore Nelson Agholor will be asked to have an increased role and he certainly has the talent to do it. Agholor has caught 11 balls for 192 yards and one touchdown with his two best performances coming against Boston College (4 catches, 55 yards) and Arizona State (3 catches, 64 yards.).
In addition to Agholor, Victor Blackwell will likely be the second scholarship receiver that the Trojans have. Blackwell returned for the ASU game and only caught two balls after catching just one last season.
Blackwell does not have a ton of experience, but probably has some of the most talent that USC can put out at the position on Thursday night.
Freshman Darreus Rogers has missed the last three games and is questionable for Thursday’s game, although it would be somewhat of a surprise if he played.
With all of the injuries that the Trojans have, there is a good chance that a walk-on or two will play a decent amount of snaps.
Ideally, USC would like to get the tight ends involved more and head coach Ed Orgeron said earlier this week that was one of his main offensive goals.
Xavier Grimble has 10 catches for 127 yards and one touchdown this season and he has had two catches for 39 yards in his last two games.
There is a good chance Randall Telfer will return for the Arizona game and it will be a big boost for an offense that can use all the weapons it can get. Telfer’s only two catches this season came against Boston College, but he also missed the past two games.
Defensively, USC will likely be without Morgan Breslin, which should help the Wildcats considerably. In four games, Breslin has 11 tackles, 7.5 of which went for a loss, and four sacks. Freshman Jabari Ruffin will take his spot and while he does not have experience, his potential is extremely high.
Across from Ruffin will be senior Devon Kennard, who has put together a nice career at USC.
He has a high of six tackles this season, which came against Arizona State. That may not seem like a lot, but he is consistent and also has three sacks, as the defensive staff likes him to be aggressive.
Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson will get the start at the other two linebacker spots.
Both have a ton of experience and have combined for 51 tackles. Those are not the only linebackers that will play, but they should easily have the biggest impact.
The best player on the defensive ball that USC has is defensive tackle Leonard Williams. The 6-foot-5, 290-pound sophomore is one of the best at his position in the country and has seven tackles for loss, including two sacks against Hawaii.
On the line with him is George Uko, who has four sacks this season, but is not the type to put up big numbers from the end position. He does get consistent pressure on the quarterback, but has battled some inconsistency this season.
USC’s secondary is probably the most questionable part of the defense, but there is certainly some talent there.
Josh Shaw has played at both corner and safety this season and Orgeron has been giving him more time at safety in practice.
Dion Bailey was a very good linebacker last season, but now sees his time at free safety. Bailey has two interceptions this season and is strong in the open field. He will split time with Demetrious Wright, who has 23 tackles on the season.
In terms of potential, there aren’t many in the country that has more than freshman Su’a Cravens. He has 24 tackles and two interceptions and is known as a playmaker.
As good as Williams is on the line, Cravens may have the most potential to make a big play and change the momentum of the game.
If Shaw plays safety, the starting corners will likely be Kevon Seymour and Torin Harris. Harris started 11 games last season and Seymour has 14 tackles so far this season.
USC has plenty of talent and Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez has made it known throughout the week. The Trojans will likely come out with an increased energy and it will be up to the Wildcats to match that energy.
If they can’t, it could be a struggle and USC should have an easier time building momentum.
For Arizona, defense will obviously be important, but the passing game has to be more effective than the Washington game. B.J. Denker does not have to be a superstar, but he has to be accurate and minimize mistakes. If not, the coaching staff could choose to make a move at quarterback.
Players to Watch:
#86- TE, Xavier Grimble: With Orgeron saying he wants to get the tight ends more involved, Grimble immediately becomes more dangerous. Arizona has struggled with tight ends in the past and if Grimble gets a few completions in the middle of the field, it changes Arizona’s defense and opens the field up for USC.
#21- S, Su’a Cravens: Cravens came to USC as one of the highest ranked players in the country and is off to a nice start. As we stated above, he seems to have a knack for making plays and a bad throw by Denker could find its way right to Cravens. Denker needs to make sure he knows where Cravens is at all times.
#22- RB, Justin Davis: It will be interesting to see how many carries Davis gets because Redd is coming back, but he deserves plenty. Davis is the most explosive back the Trojans have and could give Arizona fits if he gets the ball enough.
#40- LB, Jabari Ruffin: Ruffin has to step in for one of the best linebackers in the country against a team that has one of the best running backs in the country. Ruffin has plenty of potential, but his lack of starts is probably a concern against a spread offense that is going to make him work for every tackle.
#85-WR, Victor Blackwell: Considering USC is not going to be putting many scholarship receivers forward on Thursday, we might as well point to Blackwell as being a guy to watch. He has not really played this season or even last, but the talent is there. It is these type of guys that have a tendency to step up in big games.
Keys to the game:
Establish a passing game: Denker doesn’t need to come out throwing, but he does need to complete the shorter routes. Even if it is small slant patterns or screens, completed passes will make USC respect the passing game, which will open things up on the ground.
Pressure Kessler: Kessler has trouble seeing over his huge offensive line, which is why you have seen teams blitz USC from the edge. Our guess is that Jeff Casteel has drawn up something similar and it makes sense, as Arizona is going to want to try to force mistakes and gain opportunities.
Limit penalties: Arizona had some dumb penalties against Washington and it really cost it. In another road game, the UA can’t make those mistakes. Arizona is going to need strong efforts on both sides of the ball and penalties would hurt that.
Match the energy: It would be a surprise if the Trojans don’t come out with energy. How long it lasts is a different question, but Arizona is going to have to match the initial surge. If it does, there will likely be a good game but, if not, the Wildcats could in trouble.