It looked like it might be a rare stress-free experience for Trojans fans when USC’s offense turned an interception into a touchdown on its first drive of the game against Arizona. But that was short-lived. This season is rapidly turning into a 2019 replay of precarious, arguably undeserved wins.
No. 20 USC once again had its back against the wall after Arizona took a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter on a six-yard pass from Grant Gunnell to Stanley Berryhill III. With 1:35 left in the game, USC sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis took the Trojans down the field to secure the 34-30 win. Senior running back Vavae Malepeai capped the drive with a strong touchdown run as he powered through defenders and extended the ball across the goal line.
“We, offensively, showed up late again,” Helton said. “We missed some opportunities in the red zone that I thought could separate ourselves in the game in the second half, being inside the [15-yard line] twice [and] coming away with no points wasn’t good.”
For the second-straight week, the Trojans let a less talented team take a lead because of USC’s own mistakes, exemplified by the team’s 11 penalties for 110 yards. Head coach Clay Helton said that despite the penalties, however, USC went from four turnovers last week versus Arizona State to zero this week versus Arizona. In a close game like this, he noted, if the Trojans' had turned the ball over one time they could have lost the game. Such a high quantity of penalties is certainly dangerous too, though, particularly the undisciplined personal fouls.
“That was one of those games where if we turn it over one time, we may lose that game,” Helton said. “To go from four turnovers last week to zero ... There’s positives that came out of it. Was it perfectly clean? Heck no. It wasn’t. The penalties are one of the areas we’ll look at the tape and get improved.”
USC had an upper hand over Arizona after its season opener last weekend against Utah was canceled due to COVID-19 complications on the Utes' end.
The 14-point favorite Trojans appeared overconfident and even looked complacent at times.
In the first half, Arizona led by nearly every metric besides points on the scoreboard despite being down by four points. The Wildcats' offensive numbers dwarfed the Trojans' with 120 and 111 passing and rushing yards to USC’s 80 and 65, respectively.
These problems may have been exacerbated by the fact that Arizona had film on USC from the 2020 season while USC saw this iteration of the Wildcats for the first time on the field.
As such, the Trojans never pulled ahead more than seven points. Fans saw the same short-yardage issues that plagued USC against Arizona State as the Trojans were unable to get any push from the offensive line.
Not only were there issues with USC’s own run game, the defense couldn’t seem to stop Arizona’s either. That’s due in large part to poor communication, junior safety Talanoa Hufanga said in the postgame press conference. Hufanga missed much of the first half with a deep quad bruise.
USC’s defense kept it in the game while the offense struggled by adjusting to the Wildcats' attack.
“We moved to a different personnel, bringing a bigger guy that could keep an eye on [Gunnell],” Hufanga said. “We just had to trust our personnel on the back end. We wanted to bring definitely a little more pressure and try to give guys opportunities to make our plays as a defense.”
Then it was on Slovis' shoulders to put the game out of reach and turn around an offense that had gained just 145 total yards through two quarters.
Arizona often dropped eight players into coverage, an approach that has had success against the Trojans' air raid offense. Slovis did not appear to be at full strength and threw some wobbly passes for the second game in a row.
“I’ll get it fixed next week, we have a lot of time to get it fixed,” Slovis said postgame. “My arm feels great, I just need to get it fixed mechanically.”
USC also threw many passes outside of the numbers instead of exploiting the Wildcats' weak linebackers and safeties by throwing seam routes. The Trojans' crossing routes often played right into Arizona’s zone.
For USC to fulfill its preseason expectations, it will need to win more convincingly from here on out. Eeking out a win as the Trojans did against both Arizona teams is not a good look for a team trying to make the College Football Playoff.
“Our kids really deal with reality well,” Helton said. “They deal with the truth well, and there are some things that I know they know and I tell them in the locker room. There are some things that we need to get better at, but celebrate our wins.”
Next week, the Trojans will travel to Salt Lake City to face Utah. But after seeing several Pac-12 games canceled these past couple of weeks, no game is certain. The win wasn’t pretty, but Helton emphasized that the team has won under difficult circumstances.
“I think it speaks volumes right now,” Helton said. “The way our kids walked in here for a second week and had the opportunity to play, to be perfect as far as testing goes and the discipline that kids have to follow the protocols, the sacrifices that they’re making in isolation and, you know, I’m proud of them. They gave us an opportunity to play the game. We don’t know what next week holds.”