|Andrew Fielding/US Presswire (left), Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports (right)|
Who is playing?
The Arizona Wildcats and the Southern California Trojans.
Where is this game being played?
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California.
What time does the game start and where can I find it on my television?
7:30 PM (PT) on Fox Sports 1.
What is the point spread?
USC is favored by five and a half points (-5.5)
What should I watch for when Arizona has the ball?
On the surface this looks like a match up that USC's defense should win. Arizona cannot throw the ball worth a lick as QB B.J. Denker is currently sitting at exactly 50% completions and is averaging a pitiful 4.9 yards per pass attempt while generating just one pass for 25+ yards all season. As a team, Arizona is the only team completing less than half of its pass attempts. The Wildcats are last in the Pac-12 in every relevant passing statistic and by fairly large margins. Arizona this season has 92 pass attempts (second last has 114), 45 completions (second last has 70), 445 yards (949 for second last), two touchdowns (eleventh place has six), and a 92.36 passer rating (second last sits at 126.44).
There is no way to sugarcoat Denker's numbers or say he has potential to turn things around. He may be a nice guy who has worked his but off to go from a walk-on to a starter but he isn't a Pac-12 caliber QB and Arizona does not have any receivers who can bail him out and make great plays on poorly thrown passes. USC will be able to play straight man to man coverage across the board with minimal safety help and that will allow them to pay extra attention to the one aspect of Arizona's offense that does pose a challenge, the run game. Arizona has arguably the best running back in the nation in Ka'Deem Carey who led all running backs in rushing yards last year. Carey is a little off the pace this year but is still sitting pretty at 143.67 yards per game and he has scored five touchdowns in three games played.
Carey is not the only threat that the Wildcats have on the ground as Denker can hurt teams with his legs as well. Denker's ability to run and the threat he poses in a zone read with Carey are probably the only reason Denker still has the QB job. Denker is averaging 5.54 yards per rush attempt and has scored six touchdowns. USC will put eight men in the box and key on Carey but if they crash on him they will leave themselves susceptible to Denker pulling the ball out of Carey's stomach and burning them for big yards.
Up until the Arizona State game, USC had one of the nation's best run defenses. Through the first four games of the season, USC had not let any teams average more than four yards per carry and had yielded only one rushing touchdown. In USC's most recent game against the Sun Devils, the Trojans were gashed for 7.46 yards per carry and four touchdowns. The Trojans allowed 237 rushing yards in their first four games combined but Arizona State left tire treads on their backs to the tune of 261 yards. ASU moved the ball on the ground the same way Arizona will try to, with the zone read. As great as Taylor Kelly and Marion Grice are, Denker and Carey are both more dynamic runners and will provide an even greater threat for USC to defend. That threat will become even greater when considering the outlook of USC's defensive front. USC's lack of depth up front will be stretched to the limit by Arizona's up tempo style and the Trojans will be without arguably their best defender, Morgan Breslin, who is injured.
The key difference for USC's defense is it won't have to defend the pass tonight the way it had to against ASU. Kelly threw for 351 yards on the Trojans and there is obviously no way the Wildcats will be able to maintain that kind of balance and generate big chunks of yards through the air. However even if USC does commit eight or nine men to the box they still need to defeat blocks, otherwise Arizona will be able to run and win this game without attempting a pass. USC also probably shouldn't rely too much on the Coliseum crowd to give them a boost and discombobulate the Arizona O-line. USC has a notoriously fair weathered fan base and fans have barely shown up at all for the last two home games. With this being a mid week game and with USC administration throwing up the white flag on this season it seems unlikely that USC will have a good crowd supporting them.
There is one final thing for USC to worry about. What if Rich Rodriguez finally decides to pull the plug on Denker and put in Javelle Allen? The redshirt freshman played sparingly in the Wildcats early blowout wins but managed to reel off a 68 yard touchdown against Northern Arizona. Allen has only one career pass attempt to his name and while those who have observed Arizona practice say Allen has spotty accuracy, he does have a much stronger and more dynamic arm than Denker. Allen is obviously inexperienced and he surely does not know the play book as well as Denker. But, what if Rodriguez decides to give the kid a shot and he succeeds? Arizona's running game would be exactly the same and if Allen can simply present the threat of going deep that would change the complexion USC's defensive challenge entirely.
What should I watch for when USC has the ball?
As bad as Arizona has been in the passing game, USC has been pretty atrocious itself and it is the main reason USC has a new head coach on the sideline tonight. The Trojans ousted Lane Kiffin 11 days ago in large part because of the failures of the USC offense which Kiffin made his sole responsibility. Kiffin horded full control over the design of the playbook, game plans, and most importantly play calling and the results this season were miserable. USC is the only other team besides Arizona in the Pac-12 not to throw for 300 yards in a game this season and they have struggled to take care of the ball committing nine turnovers in five games. All but one of those turnovers has come via interception.
While Arizona struggles to create big pass plays, USC may struggle all the same against against a very good Arizona defense. The Wildcats are currently third in the Pac-12 allowing just 4.47 yards per play. The Wildcats have allowed only seven touchdowns all season and currently sit ninth nationally in scoring defense with only 14.3 points allowed per game. the biggest problem for USC is they will need to rely on their talented running backs Tre Madden and Justin Davis to set up their passing game but the Wildcats simply don't yield up front, allowing just 3.64 yards per rush this season.
It's fair to point out that Arizona's hasn't faced the most difficult schedule but Texas-San Antonio is averaging more than 400 yards per game and was totally shut down by Arizona and Washington had a worse day at home against Arizona than it did on the road against Stanford's revered defense. USC's challenge of throwing against a defense that has only allowed one passing touchdown in four games might be made even more difficult by Marqise Lee's absence. Lee has not had a very good season for certain but he is still the most talented receiver in college football and USC's best play maker. He is listed as questionable for tonight after suffering what looked like a nasty knee injury against ASU. Even if Lee plays there is no way he will be playing at 100% and that will make life that much easier for Arizona's defensive front to dictate the game against a one dimensional offense.
USC will be able to create a few decent drives with its running game but the difference in this game will come down to QB Cody Kessler. Kessler had his best game in some ways against the Sun Devils when he completed 69% of his passes for a career high 295 yards and two touchdowns. However, Kessler also threw a pair of crippling interceptions that really turned the game against USC in the third quarter. USC's fate will likely be decided by Kessler's performance on third down and his ability to take advantage of what Arizona gives him. The great unknown here is what USC's game plan will look like and how new play caller Clay Helton will call the game and set up Kessler with easy throws. Helton is a young coach with no play calling experience to speak of. He has been offensive coordinator at USC since 2010 but because of Kiffin's dictator like control over the offense he has had no real input or control over the Trojans' attack. Helton might be the next great offensive mind or might be incompetent. truth be told, he probably can't do much worse than Kiffin and USC's offensive players should be motivated and engaged for at least one night with Kiffin gone.
Which team should I bet on and which team will win?
It's probably smart to take the five and a half points and bet on Arizona's defense to control the game and avoid betting money on so much uncertainty with USC. This game should be a defensive slug fest with the outcome ultimately being decide by which defensive unit makes more mistakes to allow big plays. Ultimately, Arizona's non-existent passing game will likely kill them again and USC should be able to maintain at least some semblance of balance. So why not take USC? Well the coaching match up for one. Arizona's Rodriguez is one of America's finest college coaches while USC's interim head coach Ed Orgeron's only head coaching experience was a totally inept three year tenure at Ole Miss. The larger reason Arziona will win is the wild card on its sideline. B.J. Denker's days as Arizona QB are numbered. More specifically, those days are numbered to one, as Javelle Allen comes off the bench tonight and leads a pair of late scoring drive to give the Wildcats the win, 27-20.