Arizona-USC: Five things to watch, prediction - Tucson News Now

Arizona-USC: Five things to watch, prediction

Anthony Gimino Anthony Gimino
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By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Here's some not-so-happy trivia for Arizona fans: The Wildcats have faced USC seven times as a ranked team ... and have lost six of those games.

In five of those seven meetings, Arizona was actually ranked better than the Trojans, and still managed to win just once.

That's ominous history as the 10th-ranked Wildcats get ready to face unranked USC on Saturday night at a sold-out Arizona Stadium. But history and tradition aren't taking the field, so let's take a look at some of the 18- to 22-year-olds who will be big factors.

Here are five things to watch:

1. Anu Solomon's start

He has turned into Captain Cool just five games into his college career, the unflappable kid who is best when the pressure is turned up to 11.

Get this: Solomon is completing 70 percent of his passes (70 of 100) in the second half, with nine touchdowns and no interceptions.

He learns from his mistakes, and doesn't dwell on them, as the game goes on, increasing his completion percentage each quarter - from 55.3 to 59.3 to 69.5 to 70.7.

What a great trait to have.

So, too, is his willingness to never be satisfied.

"Every game is just the same thing - me starting off bad and then the second half I start to see things," he said. "I just have to get out of that habit. I can't put my teammates in the situations where we have to come back in certain situations. I have to start off strong."

2. Safeties playing linebacker

Arizona and USC have made recent personnel changes to highlight one of their biggest playmakers on defense.

The Trojans have moved sophomore safety Su'a Cravens to outside linebacker. He had two tackles for loss, including a sack, and an interception return for a touchdown two games ago against Oregon State. He had 3.5 tackles for loss, with a sack, last week against Arizona State.

Bondurant, upon graduating from coach Rich Rodriguez's doghouse after three games, returned to the starting lineup at linebacker after 30 career starts at the spur safety position. He had an interception and an onside kick recovery against Cal, and chipped in five tackles, including one for loss, in the win at Oregon.

"More energy," safety Will Parks said of what Bondurant brings to the defense. "He brought that extra energy, that bang-bang energy. ... It was just tears of joy when he was out on the field, making all types of plays, being active."

While each of these guys is a playmaker of note, able to cause havoc in the opposing backfield or in coverage, their pedigree highlights a common recruiting disparity between the schools. Cravens was a five-star prospect and is a seemingly can't-miss NFL guy. Bondurant was a two-star recruit who has exceeded all expectations.

3. Nelson Agholor vs. Jonathan McKnight

USC's offense under first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian has been drawing fire for being too conservative. Quarterback Cody Kessler has thrown 177 passes without an interception, but here's the bad news: Agholor, one of the top playmaking receivers in the conference, is averaging just 9.3 yards on his 35 receptions.

Arizona remembers a big-play Agholor. He had seven catches for 161 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown, that got the Trojans rolling early in last year's 38-31 win over the Wildcats.

McKnight has been fairly quiet - and that's good for a cornerback. He and the rest of the UA secondary will have to tackle well, as they did at Oregon, to prevent quick-hitting short gains to Agholor from turning into momentum-building touchdowns. USC will move him all over the formation, looking for the best matchups.

4. The USC defense

With Cravens, senior linebacker Hayes Pullard, edge rusher J.R. Tavai, and defensive lineman Leonard Williams - a potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft - the Trojans have what should be the Pac-12's best defensive front.

And that makes it all the more head-scratching that USC allowed a staggering 452 rushing yards in a loss at Boston College and then 510 passing yards in a home loss to Arizona State.

USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox told reporters this week, "I don't like using this word but I can't think of a better one; it's just like we're schizophrenic."

Solomon is a crafty enough runner that he can give the Trojans trouble with the quarterback run game, as Boston College did. Or he can fling the ball all over the yard, as Arizona State did. Remember, Arizona passed 73 times against Cal.

The UA offense is perfectly capable of taking what the defense gives it. What will it be Saturday: Run or pass?

5. The battle up front

Arizona's maligned defensive line looked good in last week's win at Oregon, taking advantage of an injury-weakened offensive line to come up with five sacks of Marcus Mariota and hold the Ducks to 3.5 yards per carry.

USC's offensive line is no great shakes, either, starting two true freshmen at guard, along with two sophomores and a junior.

"What they did really good against Oregon last week, they won on first down and put Oregon in second-and-longs and third-and-longs," Sarkisian said. "If we play behind the chains, like Oregon did, that will be hard."

PREDICTION

The stadium should be rocking for the biggest Arizona home game since Oregon in November 2009. With a win, the Wildcats start 3-0 in the conference for the first time since 2000 and get to sit in the AP Top 10 for at least two weeks (they are off next Saturday). Arizona is looking for its first 6-0 overall start since 1993.

The Wildcats have the variety of offense to score against USC. The question is whether the defensive effort against Oregon was a positive and sustainable effort, or merely a one-game blip from a unit that will regress toward its "hanging on" ways.

Whatever. The Wildcats are beginning to get a special look about them - cool, capable and confident - and I'm riding the hot hand in another close game between these programs. The past seven meetings have been decided by seven points or fewer. How about eight?

Arizona 35, USC 31.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.

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