USC-Arizona preview: Khalil Tate, 5 questions, prediction - Tucson News Now

USC-Arizona preview: Khalil Tate, 5 questions, prediction

Rich Rodriguez is 1-3 vs. USC. (Photo by Emily Gauci/Arizona Athletics) Rich Rodriguez is 1-3 vs. USC. (Photo by Emily Gauci/Arizona Athletics)
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Arizona Wildcats quarterback Brandon Dawkins is questionable because of a concussion, Anu Solomon is still doubtful due to a knee injury, and so we're back to where we were last week:

Preparing for true freshman Khalil State to get his first career start.

So, we'll just refer you to last week's preview for more on the history of the starting debuts of true freshman quarterbacks at Arizona.

The ready-made storyline this week is that Tate is a kid from Southern California, a Gardena Serra High School grad who knows and has competed with or against many Trojans. USC has nine players from Serra, a long-time pipeline to the school.

One of those Serra grads is star junior cornerback Adoree' Jackson, who raved about Tate this week.

"Once he's got the ball in his hands, it's hard to get him down," Jackson said. "One of those things where he's electrifying with the ball, he can beat you with his arm and beat you with his feet. A special kid."

Tate has played in parts of the past two games, completing 10 of 17 passes for 177 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. He has 112 rushing yards on 25 attempts, flashing an uncommonly physical approach for a quarterback -- especially one who is still 17.

"I would say he's as ready as you would hope for a 17-year-old true freshman," UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Our goal is to get him more ready every week, now that we know he is going to play and be a factor the rest of the season."

Tate is too new to it all to be able to run the full complement of the offense, but the coaches can tailor a plan to his skills and experience level.

"You watch film and say, 'Oh, this would be a good play,'" Rodriguez said. "And then you have to remember, this is a totally new play that he hasn't run before in practice or a game, whereas an upperclassmen probably has."

USC's QB

The Trojans are 3-3 on the season, 2-2 in the Pac-12, but they are playing their best of the season since coach Clay Helton inserted redshirt freshman Sam Darnold as the starting quarterback.

USC lost in the final seconds to Utah in his first start, but then routed Arizona State 41-20 and knocked off unbeaten Colorado 21-17.

Darnold adds something of a mobility/running dimension that previous starter Max Browne lacked, and the added threat has made life easier for USC's other galaxy of stars, such as wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

"They're running him more, whether it's by design or him just extending the play," Rodriguez said of Darnold. "I don't want to say they're more aggressive, but they're doing a lot of stuff. Darnold has given him some extended plays because of his running ability."

Darnold is completing 67.8 percent of his passes (80 for 118) for 1,099 yards, with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Note: He was responsible for four turnovers last week -- three fumbles and one interception.

He used his athleticism to erase one of his mistakes last week, though. He scooped up a fumbled snap, scrambled to his left about 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage, reversed field to his right to keep the play alive ... and then hit tight end Tyler Petite for an 11-yard TD pass.

5 QUESTIONS

1. Who is Larry Tharpe Jr.?

He was the No. 98 out there playing the defensive line against Utah, making three tackles. If the name wasn't familiar, it's because it was the first three tackles of his career and he wasn't even with the team until he walked-on after fall camp.

Tharpe, from Carrollton, Texas, previously spent time at Idaho State and Tyler Junior College.

Defensive line coach Vince Amey said staff analyst Mike DiAngelo brought Tharpe to his attention.

"He's like, Watch this kid. He's not the biggest, the fastest, but there is just something about him,'" Amey said.

Amey watched practice tape of Tharpe and noticed that every time he won a one-on-one drill in practice, he would point to the camera.

"He knew where the camera was at," Amey said. "I said, 'I like that kid.'"

The staff called him, got him squared away academically, and then watched him do well on the scout team early in the season. Tharpe (6-5, 175) has played in two games, with last week's action his longest stint by far.

"He has long arms, he understands the game, he understands his leverage and what he has to do," Amey said.

2. Can anyone stop USC's JuJu Smith-Schuster?

Smith-Schuster wasn't even supposed to play last season against Arizona because of a hand injury, but he ended up saving USC's bacon by catching eight passes for 138 yards and one touchdown.

Arizona cornerback Dane Cruikshank has been solid all season, and the X-factor is sophomore Jace Whittaker, who started his first game last week against Utah, breaking up five passes in the first half.

This will be a huge challenge for the Arizona defense, which also has to deal with WR Darreus Rogers and a tight end corps that made its presence felt last week with three touchdown receptions.

"They're good," Whittaker said of USC's pass-catchers. "Everybody knows it. It's not hard to tell."

3. Will Arizona hold up in the second half?

The Wildcats have led UCLA and Utah at halftime in the past two weeks, but their defense hasn't had enough in the tank to make a stand.

Arizona allowed UCLA and Utah to score on nine of 11 second-half possessions. In fact, the past four opponents have scored a touchdown on their first drive of the second half -- setting a bad tone for the Cats.

Is it a simple case of the smallish -- and not completely healthy -- defensive front wearing down?

"They have worked their tails off," Amey said.

"I can't put my finger on it. We'll get it fixed. But we're still in the mix. We can't put our heads down. We still have to stay on them and feed them positive energy."

4. Will Ronald Jones II have a breakthrough game?

The sophomore looked like he would emerge as the next great USC running back, but he was banged up a bit early in the season as Justin Davis took a leading role at tailback. Davis isn't likely to play this week because of a high ankle sprain.

Look for Jones and Aca'Cedric Ware to handle the tailback spot, but Arizona should be most wary of Jones, considering the Cats couldn't stop him last season. He ran 19 times for 177 yards, which is twice more than he gained against any other team as a freshman.

5. Does history matter?

In one of the weirdest stats in the country, the past nine Arizona-USC games have been decided by no more than eight points -- a single score (plus a two-point conversion). Unfortunately for UA, the Trojans have won seven of those.

On paper, USC has the huge collection of four- and five-star talent. But, traditionally, the chip-on-their-shoulder Wildcats get up for this matchup as well as anyone.

INJURY UPDATE

The best news on Arizona's weekly list is that running back Nick Wilson is considered probable as he recovers from an ankle injury. He warmed up before last week's Utah game, but decided he couldn't push off the ankle at game speed, Rodriguez said.

Wilson has a total of eight carries in the past four games and would be a huge addition to Arizona's upset plans for Saturday afternoon.

The rest of the list:

--Probable: DL Luca Bruno (ankle), FB Jamardre Cobb (knee), WR Shawn Poindexter (foot), OL Freddie Tagaloa (knee)

--Questionable: QB Brandon Dawkins (concussion), DL Parker Zellers (knee)

--Doubtful: QB Anu Solomon (knee)

--Out: DB Isaiah Hayes (concussion), LB Cody Ippolito (knee, season-ending), RB J.J. Taylor (ankle, season-ending)

PREDICTION

This has the ingredients for an Arizona upset: Home game, day game, expected near-capacity crowd, a big-name opponent that the Wildcats have played well against.

But, this pick goes with logic over feel. USC is too talented, too big on the offensive line and isn't playing like a bunch of knuckleheads.

USC 31, Arizona 17,

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