The Trojans have won two games in a row under interim coach Clay Helton and are feeling confident in an offense that is leaning more on the run game in recent weeks. Arizona has lost two in a row, including a 49-3 blowout last week at Washington that was only the second time the Wildcats had been held without a touchdown under Rich Rodriguez.
Here are storylines to watch when each team has the ball:
When Arizona has the ball
The Wildcats can put up big numbers and are currently ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12 in scoring, total offense and rushing. But things are a little unsettled at quarterback, and they are also dealing with injuries. Anu Solomon was supposed to be an experienced veteran right now as the returning quarterback, but he’s been sharing time lately with speedy Jerrard Randall, who brings more of a running presence to the position. Nick Wilson is the leading rusher on the team, but he is expected to miss the game after sitting out much of the last three weeks with a foot injury. Jared Baker has been a steady running back option as the Wildcats have been averaging 265 rushing yards per game. Cayleb Jones leads the way for a deep receiver group. The Wildcats will be missing two starters along the offensive line due to injury.
One area of improvement the USC defense has shown in recent games is the ability to slow the opposing run game. The Trojans' defensive line in particular has been able to create more pressure at the point of attack, and it may get an added body on Saturday as defensive tackle Claude Pelon (who has missed several weeks due to a knee injury) was able to practice this week and could be available for the game. In the secondary, look for the versatile Adoree' Jackson to spend the majority of this game on the defensive side of the ball to help slow the explosive Wildcats offense.
When USC has the ball
The Arizona defense is vulnerable in this game, as the Wildcats are ranked No. 11 in the conference in pass defense, scoring defense and total defense. They are also without their leader, linebacker Scooby Wright, who continues to be out with injury. All of that is not good news when you’re getting ready to face Cody Kessler and the Trojans offense.
Helton has introduced more of a commitment to running the football, as USC ran the ball a total of 95 times in the last two games. That has allowed the Trojans a great ability to control the tempo of both games and to extend drives with third-down conversions and capitalize on red-zone opportunities. Both of those are areas of weakness for the Arizona defense, so look for Helton and the Trojans to continue with their recent plan. Kessler was 18-of-22 last week, which is exactly the kind of efficiency needed against an inexperienced Arizona secondary, and there has been success with a three-headed tailback rotation of Tre Madden, Justin Davis and Ronald Jones. One area to watch will be at receiver, where JuJu Smith-Schuster underwent surgery on his hand this week and his status for the game is unclear.
It was supposed to be a season where Arizona took another step under Rodriguez in his fourth year in Tucson as the Wildcats were coming off a 10-win season, a Pac-12 South title and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. Instead, the team has seen injuries and unsteady play result in a 5-4 overall mark but only 2-4 in conference. In three of those conferences losses, the Wildcats were outscored by a combined 160-50. There is also plenty of media speculation about Rodriguez being a candidate for other head jobs that are open in college football.
Helton is a coach who could end up as a candidate for one of those head jobs at the end of the season, but he is also busy trying to interview for the job he already has on an interim basis. With four games left in the season, Helton has put the Trojans in position to finish strong and compete for the Pac-12 South, and he’s done it in a way that has renewed the team after the firing of Steve Sarkisian.