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December 3, 2009

Game 12: Arizona preview

Game 12: Jojo Left His Home in Tucson, Arizona

As the Wildcats visit to close out the 2009 regular season, the Trojans hope to protect their 'California grass' one last time.

The USC Trojans (8-3, 5-3 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 18 in the BCS, No. 19 in the USA Today coaches' poll, and No. 20 by the Associated Press, put the final touches on the 2009 regular season on Saturday, December 5, against the Arizona Wildcats (7-4, 5-3) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of an ABC national television audience. It is the 33rd meeting in the series, with USC leading by a 26-6 margin. The Trojans have won the past seven games against Arizona, including a hard-fought 17-10 win in Tucson a season ago and an ugly 20-13 decision in the last Coliseum meeting in 2007.

A week ago, the Trojans beat UCLA, 28-7 - USC's 10th victory in the past 11 meetings with its crosstown rivals. A strong defensive performance, led by linebacker Malcolm Smith (15 tackles and an early pick-six that gave USC a lead it never lost), was overshadowed by a late Matt Barkley touchdown pass that apparently rubbed some of the powder-blue faithful wrong. Meanwhile, the Wildcats topped in-state nemesis Arizona State, 20-17, in Tempe. A muffed punt by the Sun Devils led to a game-winning Alex Zendejas field goal at the gun, giving Arizona its first two-game winning streak in the series since the late 1990s.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (96-18, 63-13 in the Pac-10), having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Arizona headman Mike Stoops (32-38, 22-29 Pac-10) is in his sixth season in Tucson. After taking over a troubled program, Stoops finally got the Cats back into a bowl game in 2008, defeating BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, to snap a 10-year postseason drought. His 2009 team started out 6-2, with a tough road loss at Iowa and a freak loss (on one of the strangest interceptions any of us will ever see) at Washington. A strong offense and veteran defense have continued to battle through the Wildcats' past three outings - draining losses at California and at home against Oregon, as well as the aforementioned last-second win at ASU. Do the Wildcats have anything left emotionally as they come into the Coliseum?

Arizona Offense
Offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes truly changed the Wildcats offensive fortunes when he arrived in 2007. What was a solid defensive program with a very questionable offense has become a program defined by its high-flying offensive attack. The Wildcats rank in the top half of the offensive-minded Pac-10 in rushing, passing, scoring and total offense - unheard of in the first half of this decade. This season might be Dykes best effort yet, with the Wildcats losing long-term starters across many skill positions to graduation - and then facing a series of troubling injuries throughout 2009. However, redshirt sophomore quarterback Nick Foles, who took over starting duties from sophomore Matt Scott in the Wildcats' fourth game (a 37-32 win at Oregon State), has been outstanding in leading the Arizona attack. Foles has thrown for 17 scores and just seven interceptions, while completing more than two-thirds of his passes in the Wildcats' short-game passing attack. While he doesn't look to run often, Arizona's quick-hitting style has kept the sack totals down - the Cats have allowed just 11 sacks in 2009.

Foles has been helped by a deep group of receivers - five of whom have more than 30 grabs. Working out of a series of four receiver sets (incorporating zero, one or two tight ends/H-backs), senior wideout Terrell Turner and big sophomore target Juron Criner have been fantastic. Turner has 47 catches for four scores, while Criner has 38 grabs and a team-leading 13.7 yard average and eight scores. Slot man Dave Roberts, a sophomore, has 40 catches, while junior Delashaun Dean has notched 34. Another sophomore slot receiver, David Douglas, has 31 catches. This productivity has been crucial as the Wildcats lost their best target, TE Rob Gronkowski, to a back injury before the season.

Key injuries have also hampered the Wildcats' backfield in 2009. However, there's been just enough health for Arizona to average more than five yards per carry and 175 yards per game. Junior Nic Grigsby is the leader, though he's been in and out of the lineup since Arizona's fourth game due to a shoulder injury. He's missed three games, but still leads the team with 559 yards rushing, five TDs and a 7.5 per-carry average. His backups, diminutive but speedy sophomore Keola Antolin and bulky freshman Greg Nwoko, have also struggled with injuries, but are likely to see more carries than Grigsby on Saturday. Antolin has 518 yards, a 5.8 average and four scores, while Nwoko is a banger who averages a notch below four yards per carry.

A key to the Wildcats' success despite green quarterbacks and injury issues has been a veteran offensive line. Seniors Mike Diaz (LT), Herman Hall (LG) and Adam Grant (RT) have been leaders of a group that's opened holes no matter which back was healthy and has held opposing defenses to just one sack per game. Joining that trio are solid junior C Colin Baxter and impressive sophomore RG Vaughn Dotsy. While Hall is a great utility man who can be used at both guard spots or center in case of injury, juniors Phillip Garcia (tackle) and Conan Amituanai (guard) have also seen extensive time.

Arizona Defense
Mark Stoops had to think that his defense - featuring a slew of experience in every group - was going to be solid in 2009. And the Wildcats' defensive coordinator has to feel good about what he's seen for the most part. Arizona ranks second in the conference in total defense, third in rushing defense and fourth in pass defense. The lone problem? Arizona is only seventh in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, allowing nearly 24 points per game. The Wildcats love to pressure the quarterback, totaling 31 sacks on the season, but have struggled to force turnovers, with only 18 takeaways (compared to 19 for USC, currently an all-time low total for a Carroll-coached Trojan team).

Up front, junior defensive end Ricky Elmore has become a force, leading the Pac-10 with 10.5 sacks. At 6'5, 250, he's rangy and fast. At the other end spot, junior Brooks Reed has shared time with classmate (but no relation) D'Aundre Reed. Together, they have teamed for 32 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Inside, senior defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and classmate Donald Horton (NT), have become a formidable duo against the run. Mitchell counts 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks among his 38 stops, while Horton has three sacks. Junior Lolmana Mikaele has spelled both for short stretches throughout the season.

A trio of seniors patrol the middle of the Arizona defense, led by weakside linebacker Xavier Kelley, who leads the team with 66 tackles, including two sacks and a forced fumble. Kelley's quickness has served him well in a system that looks to speedy linebackers to make plays. Middle linebacker Vina Tuihalamaka has 5.5 tackles for loss included in his 64 stops, while strongsider Sterling Lewis has 34 tackles and two interceptions.

The secondary mixes talented youth with solid experience. At corner, sophomore Trevin Wade leads Arizona with four interceptions and has made a stellar 57 tackles. Senior Devin Ross has been solid across the way, ranking second on the team with 65 tackles and tying Wade for the team lead with nine passes broken up. Junior Mike Turner has also seen some time, but senior Corey Hall has 34 stops as the Wildcats' nickel back. Senior free safety Cam Nelson is the group's vocal leader and a key playmaker. He has 60 stops, three sacks and three forced fumbles. Sophomore Robert Golden has been up and down at strong safety, mixing impressive play with troubling errors. He has 35 tackles, and is spelled at times by junior Joe Perkins.

Arizona Special Teams
The aforementioned Zendejas has had a solid sophomore season, making 17-of-22 field goal attempts and 35-of-38 PATs. He's split time on kickoffs (losing time of late) with classmate John Bonano. Punter Keenyn Crier has struggled in his junior season. He has a big leg, but has kicked a very returnable ball in 2009, and the Wildcats haven't covered well, as Arizona opponents average nearly 15 yards per return. Not to be outdone, Arizona's return teams have been stellar, with sophomore Bug Wright averaging more than 19 yards per punt return and junior Travis Cobb averaging more than 25 yards per kick return. Both have a return TD in 2009.

USC Offensive Gameplan
If, by the season's final week, USC fans have not yet come to grips with the fact that the Trojan offense is wracked with inconsistency (for whatever reason you or I want to assign), then it's clear that you're - at the least - more hopeful than I. A week ago, the Trojan offense struggled for most of four quarters against an admittedly solid UCLA defense. Certainly, penalties and an untimely interception deep in Bruin territory were part of the reason the Trojans had mustered a single offensive touchdown in the game's first 55 minutes. But, at the same time, play selection lacking cohesion put Barkley and his mates in more than one difficult position.

Then, suddenly, once the Bruins closed the score to 14-7, USC put together perhaps its most well-designed and well-executed drive in - seemingly - weeks. Mixing safe, but surprising, passes with powerful running from Allen Bradford, the four-minute, 73-yard touchdown drive was a thing of beauty. Then, after UCLA gave up the ball on downs and called a timeout after USC kneeled on the ball with less than a minute remaining, fans saw the re-emergence of the long-lost Trojan killer instinct. Barkley's 48-yard touchdown pass to Damian Williams not only set off a firestorm of controversy between rivals, but it also seemed to pull the Trojan team together in a way rarely seen this season.

How will that final five minutes affect the USC offense going into its final scheduled game? One hopes that it convinces John Morton and Jeremy Bates to loosen the reins a bit and design an offense that truly puts its skill players in position to make plays this weekend. Arizona's defense is solid, but it can be exploited with creative play calling. The questionable status of Joe McKnight might give Allen Bradford a shot to carry a full load at tailback - something that would be interesting against a Wildcat defense that has allowed 4.2 yards per carry in its losses, but just 3.3 in its wins. Committing to run the football has been a key for the teams that have beaten Arizona - the Cats' defense (which loves to get upfield with its front seven) is very susceptible to play-action passing, short dumps and screens, if it is struggling against the run.

USC Defensive Gameplan
In the past four games, the Trojan defense has been stellar against questionable offenses (ASU, UCLA) and abysmal against good offenses (Oregon, Stanford). The good news? USC's defense is as healthy right now as it's been in weeks, and the Trojans had to gain a measure of confidence by matching the UCLA offense score-for-score last weekend. The bad news? Arizona's offense - while not on par with the Ducks or Cardinal - is much closer in design and capability to those clubs than the Bruins or Sun Devils.

There is a silver lining, however. Both Oregon and Stanford gashed the USC defense running the football, before slicing it wide open with timely passing. Arizona, however, tends to rely on its short, quick-hitting passing attack to open up its rushing game. And the injury riddled Arizona backfield has struggled to get much going in recent weeks - take away a 67-yard TD jaunt by Antolin last Saturday, the Wildcats are averaging less than three yards per carry in their past three games.

Arizona's offensive design is likely to force the Trojans' corners and linebackers to play tighter, since the Wildcats love to throw underneath and let their receivers ratchet up their yards-after-catch numbers. Unfortunately for the Cats, outside of the sizeable Criner, none of their key receivers have shown a lot of skill at breaking free. USC is unlikely to get to Foles thanks to his desire to unload the ball quickly, but he's also unlikely to hurt them with his legs the way Jeremiah Masoli and Andrew Luck did. That means the defensive line needs to get its hands up early. If USC is to put on a solid defensive performance Saturday, it comes down to disrupting the timing of the Arizona passing attack and avoiding giving up the random big running play.

The Pick
For the first time since 2003, the Trojans wrap the regular season with a game against someone other than UCLA - and this is only the third time ever that the Wildcats haven't closed the season against ASU. With both teams coming off emotionally charged victories over their big rivals, the possibility of a letdown coming into this week is a question for both clubs.

It seemed to me, however, that the final minutes of the UCLA game gave the Trojans a new life that we haven't seen in weeks. It felt like a weight was lifted off the team's shoulders and that the team became closer. If that is truly the case, expect to see a very loose but very focused USC squad on the Coliseum field this Saturday. On the other end, it will be interesting to see what the Wildcats have left after three grueling and emotional games. In the past three weeks, Arizona suffered losses in a tough battle at Cal and a in a brutal double-OT war with Oregon - losses which cost the Cats a shot at the school's first Rose Bowl appearance. Then, last week, Arizona had to regroup and bring it again in perhaps the Pac-10's ugliest rivalry, winning in the game's final second. Does Arizona have anything left in the tank?

I'm sure they do - but I'm not sure how much. I expect both teams to come out flying emotionally early on. Who can make early plays to capitalize? If USC is able to get a couple stops and a score or two early, it would make slowing the powerful Arizona offense that much easier - and may lead to Arizona running out of gas. If not, and Arizona gets it rolling early, it could be a long afternoon. It says here that a fast and loose USC team plays its best all-around game in weeks to close out the regular season on a positive note.

USC 31, Arizona 24

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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