LOS ANGELES — Southern California has persevered through its midseason upheaval and emerged with relative serenity heading down the regular-season stretch.
The drama is still heavy at Arizona, and it might get even worse in November if these two programs continue on their divergent paths at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
USC (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) has won its last two games under interim coach Clay Helton, and team spirit is running high heading into the showdown with the Wildcats (5-4, 2-4). The Trojans are firmly in the race for the Pac-12 South title, and every win improves the well-liked Helton’s slim-but-growing chances of landing the full-time job.
It all adds up to plenty of motivation under the late-night lights against Arizona in USC’s last home game before the regular-season finale against UCLA on Thanksgiving weekend.
“There’s always been adversity here, but we know how to handle it,” said quarterback Cody Kessler, who has passed for 2,268 yards and 18 touchdowns in eight games. “I’ve been through a lot, but I’ve enjoyed every second of it. It’s different (under Helton), but he’s done a really good job, and we’re in a really good place right now.”
The Wildcats are not in a really good place: The defending Pac-12 South champions have lost two straight and four of six, including a humiliating 49-3 defeat at Washington last weekend.
What’s more, coach Rich Rodriguez features prominently in the conversation for job openings at Virginia Tech and South Carolina, adding to the uncertainty around a program in danger of taking a significant step back.
Rodriguez calls the talk about his future “all rumors and speculation.”
“When adversity strikes, there are three things that happen,” Rodriguez said. “You either fight, flight or freeze. We are going to fight. We will fight through the adversity. I don’t think anyone will flee, and I hope no one freezes.”
The fight won’t mean much if Arizona can’t slow Kessler and the Trojans’ offense, which has scored at least 27 points in all but one game since Helton became the play-caller this season. The Wildcats have allowed at least 45 points in all of their four defeats, along with 31 points by losing Colorado, during their six-game spiral.
Here are some more things to watch as Arizona goes for its third win over USC since 2000:
INJURY WATCH: Arizona is expected to be without running back Nick Wilson, who has a knee injury. The Wildcats’ top offensive player isn’t the only key contributor out: Both starting offensive guards (Jacob Alsadek and Freddie Tagaloa) are out, as are elite linebackers Scooby Wright and Derrick Turituri. The Trojans are also missing several important players, and they aren’t sure whether No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be able to play after midweek surgery on his broken hand.
STOP THE RUN: USC has held three of its last four opponents under 140 yards rushing, slowing a season of struggle against the run. Arizona’s offense has rushed for 825 more yards than its opponents this season. The Trojans’ run-stopping ability has grown, but the Wildcats are a major test even with backup Jared Baker playing in Wilson’s place. “I know they want to run the ball,” star linebacker Su’a Cravens said. “But if we can get them to pass it more than they run it, we’re going to be all right.”
RECRUIT RUB: Rodriguez will attempt to draw from a familiar motivational well for most opponents of the high-powered Trojans: “Probably 100 percent of our guys weren’t recruited from them, and a lot of them are from California, so hopefully they have a little edge about that,” the Arizona coach said.
KEEP IT TIGHT: History suggests this matchup will be close: The schools’ last eight meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less. The evening kickoff, the national television broadcast and Arizona’s high-octane offense ensure a late night at the Coliseum, which has a history of dramatic games decided in the wee hours. “We know it could be a long night, and we’re prepared,” Kessler said.
SLOW IT DOWN: USC’s defense has improved by slowing down Utah and California in the last two weeks. Arizona’s inventive, high-volume offense provides the biggest test yet of the Trojans’ new mindset under Helton. “Whatever they run, it’s not necessarily a run and not necessarily a pass,” Cravens said. “We’ve just got to be patient.”