Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sand trap preview: (5) USC at Arizona

Before the regular season began, and long before the Trojans suffered the unlikely loss in Corvallis, one Pac 10 road game has been circle on the schedule, and that was the October visit to Tucson. It’s amazing that fans of the Empire would circle any game with Mike Stoops coaching on the opposing sideline, but I can see some reason to worry. Over the past 4 seasons, the Wildcats have presented a sand trap. Though their regular season records were woeful, the underdogs of the desert managed to claim a top 25 victim in each. The tombstones would read No. 2 Oregon in ‘07, No. 8 Cal in ‘06, No. 7 UCLA in ‘05, and No. 20 Arizona State in ’04. Are this year’s Wildcats worth the worry for the incoming 5th ranked (BCS) Trojans? Maybe, but they aren’t as problematic as they may appear on paper.

Last Week: W-Cal

What Arizona brings is a load of offensive hype. The Sonny Dykes offense is finally clicking, and quarterback Willie Tuitama has matured into an efficient passer. Nicolas Grisby adds the ground support, and together, the Cats move the ball pretty well. But even with all that said, and all the hype given, Arizona still ranks 32nd in the nation offensively. Both Oregon schools are more productive, and the Trojans are the Pac 10 leader in the category. As we dig deeper, their offensive totals were amassed in games against Idaho, Toledo, New Mexico, UCLA, Washington, Stanford, and Cal, meaning the best defense they’ve faced was Cal’s 32nd ranked unit last weekend.

The same can be said about a Wildcats defense that lost their biggest playmaker, cornerback Antoine Cason, to the NFL in April. Arizona hasn’t battled an offense ranked among the nation’s top 20 this season. USC will represent their first. The defensive line doesn’t apply much pressure on the quarterback, recording an average of one sack per game, and aren’t very strong against the run, giving up more than 130 yards to opponents. Their “paper” strength would be in defense of the pass, allowing 253 to opponents. But as we view the larger picture, some of their opponents have woeful rankings in the air, New Mexico (111th), and Stanford (109th). Ironically, Arizona lost to both struggling air attacks.

Last week: W-Washington State

Southern Cal is fresh off the thrashing of Washington State. Since the loss to Oregon State, the Trojans have outscored their opponents 141-10, including consecutive shutouts in the past two weeks. Against the worst BCS conference program in America, USC was given the opportunity to rest healthy players, allow injured players to heal, and give the inexperience on the roster some time on the field. They bring a double edged sword to the Arizona desert, an offensive unit that is very efficient and stingy defense that allows little movement.

USC is the Pac 10 statistical leader in nearly all offensive and defensive categories. Quarterback Mark Sanchez is 7th in the nation in pass efficiency, and the Trojans rank second overall nationally in total defense, surrendering just 220 yards per contest. The offensive line protects well (just 6 sacks on the season), while the defensive line lives in opposing backfields (15 sacks). The defense also allows just 83 yards rushing, and a ridiculous average of just 7 points to opponents.

Analysis: As in every game already played this year, only the Trojans can beat the Trojans in the desert. This unit is far superior to the one led by Mike Stoops, and only the team’s lack of focus would keep the Wildcats in this ballgame. The environment presents the trap, with a full stadium anxious for a field storming. Allow the Cats to jump out to any kind of lead, and the roaring crowd will give them the confidence to finish. This may possibly be the last desert dance for Mike Stoops, but if David can take down Goliath, he may avoid the unemployment line for at least another season.

All Time Series: Trojans lead 25-6
Streak: Trojans won 6

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