• John Skinner

2016 Arizona Preview

Updated: Aug 28, 2018

Pendergast and defense deserve strong praise for performance against Colorado: DC Clancy Pendergast did a phenomenal job of having the Trojan defense ready to face a potent Colorado offense.  The SC defense dominated the Buffaloes and the defensive game-plan allowed for SC’s superior athleticism to shine. The defensive line played their best game of the year and were able to create deeper line penetration that we haven’t seen until the past two games.  Pendergast is also blitzing more and he seems to have a great feel for defending spread-type offenses…

Porter Gustin living up to his 5-star recruiting ranking:  According to beat writer Scott Wolf, sophomore defensive end Porter Gustin has incorporated new moves while rushing the quarterback and NFL scouts are noticing and praising him.  Gustin and Rasheem Green have really stepped up over the past few games and are the main reason why the defensive line has started to grade out much stronger than they did earlier in the year.

Safety Chris Hawkins making an impact with SC blitzing more:  Hawkins isn’t putting up noteworthy statistics as he only has five tackles in the past two games, but he’s making big plays with SC blitzing more.  He had a sack against ASU, forced Colorado QB’s to throw the ball away on two key 3rd down plays and his pressure helped lead to Adoree’ Jackson’s amazing/acrobatic interception.  With Hawkins in the game compared to fellow safety Marvell Tell, the defense allowed 123 less yards on five fewer plays…equating to a 3.6 yard per play (ypp) average compared to 6.3 ypp when Tell was in.  This isn’t a knock on Tell who is performing fine. It is an acknowledgement of Hawkins solid play at the position and that he is performing better when SC is more aggressive on defense.  It is also nice to see a player like Hawkins step up and positively perform after being demoted from the starting line-up earlier in the season.

RB Ronald Jones needs to display his elite ability on Saturday for Trojans to leave Tucson with a win:  Ronald Jones has been in a sophomore slump and Justin Davis has taken full advantage of it and was having a stellar year both running and catching out of the back-field until his ankle injury Saturday.  With Davis definitely out this week, Jones will get the majority of the carries and will be able to get into a consistent groove against a porous Arizona defense.  The Trojan offense might suffer from a passing perspective since Jones is not the pass receiving threat of Davis (Davis has the best catch rate on the team while Jones has the worst) but Jones definitely has the speed and quickness to create big plays out of the backfield.  When Jones took over for the injured Davis against Colorado, the offense wasn’t as productive but he did seem to start getting into a grove and got to the second level of the defense a few times.  His confidence seemed to really improve with those runs and SC will need an extension of that on Saturday to walk away with its first victory on the road. Also, Jones broke a true freshman rushing record last year by running for 177 yards against Arizona.  He would love a repeat performance.

Quick Keys to a victory at Arizona: *Contain the running QB: SC has always had issues with a running QB and Arizona is not shy about letting the QB’s run. They are one of the best in the country when it comes to positive yards on the ground from their QB.  Overall, the Wildcats rank 3rd in the Pac-12 in rushing offense.  SC will most likely face former Serra standout QB Khalil Tate and he is a special athlete. Though he is only a freshman and struggled against Utah, he looked phenomenal against UCLA after replacing the injured Brandon Dawkins. SC has quite a few Serra alums on the roster and they are very aware of his skill set and abilities. *Force Arizona to convert on 3rd down: Arizona ranks last in the conference in 3rd down conversion rate so if Pendergast and company continue its upward trend and contain the big play, SC should escape the desert with a victory. *Wear Arizona down physically:  Arizona has been decimated by injuries this season and if SC is able to establish a running game and have some long sustained drives, Arizona will be gassed by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. *Clean up the sloppiness: SC cannot afford to turn the ball over 3+ times and get a win on the road and they must continue to cut down on penalties like they have the past few weeks.

Trojans continue to increase the amount of the pistol formation with Darnold at QB: SC used the pistol 33 times against Colorado which almost doubled the amount of times they used it against ASU. Per this report last week, SC had a ton of success in the formation so it makes sense. The output in terms of yards per play wasn’t as successful as the 9.25 ypp against ASU but was still solid with a 6.24 ypp average.  However, it might have helped open things up when in the shotgun formation as SC averaged 9.70 yards per play on throwing out of the shotgun.

Darnold’s play can be risky but worth it:  As we noted last week, Darnold can play with a bit of reckless abandon and it would eventually lead to some turnovers.  We saw that vs. Colorado as he had three turnovers. However, he is a bonafide playmaker that SC has not had at the position since Sanchez.  Former QB Cody Kessler was a good/conservative college QB but his average ypp was around 5. Darnold’s sample size is much smaller but he’s averaging 7.4 ypp and that is a massive difference over the course of a game.  Putting that in perspective, Washington has the fourth most efficient offense in in the country and averages 7.5 ypp.   Darnold is also willing to make the tough throw when the game is on the line and his teammates truly appreciate his confident demeanor. Enjoy watching him. His natural football instincts and ability to make broken plays into new opportunities as opposed to a negative play is rare.

Helton had to start Browne over Darnold early in the season: Everyone observing practice knew that Darnold was the better fit over Browne for the talent SC possesses on offense. However, per what we have mentioned in the past, SC could not afford to have Browne transfer before the season started.  If Browne lost the job in August, he would have had the ability to transfer and be eligible immediately at other schools.  Furthermore, SC would have no real back-up QB if Darnold got hurt.  Matt Fink is nowhere near being a college- ready QB so the best option would have been WR Jalen Greene.  Without a viable back-up heading into what appeared to be the toughest schedule in the country, Helton had to be loyal to Browne and give him a shot.  Now, not giving Darnold the start after two games or a bigger opportunity against Stanford is something that can definitely be questioned.

Betting Guide: SC opened as a 7 point favorite and the line is now up to 9.5 points.  Over the past two weeks, the professional gamblers have started to take a positive look at SC with Darnold at QB.  They got burned last week but would have covered if Smith-Schuster scored the final touchdown instead of stopping just short of the goal line. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as SC has lost their last 5 games on the road and Arizona is a very good home team.  With a 9.5 point spread combined with SC’s recent struggles on the road, I wouldn’t take the Trojans even though they should comfortably win the game.

Washington may not be as good as the experts think:  Washington appears to be a great team and they are currently ranked 5th in the nation with an undefeated record.  They are developing a swagger and attitude needed to be a true college playoff contender. However, if you take an in-depth look at them, they have yet to be challenged and when they were, they almost lost in overtime to a below average Arizona team. The early season schedule was littered with “cupcakes”.  The blow-out victory over Stanford is not what it seems.  Stanford was coming off two highly emotional victories over SC and UCLA, it was a back-to-back road game for them and six significant starters were out with injuries.  Also, Washington State blew out Stanford this past week.  The victory at Oregon doesn’t prove much since they are now considered to be one of the worst teams in the conference despite their reputation for routinely being one of the best.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bits:

*Arizona has given up more than 400 yards of offense in thirteen consecutive games.

*SC should once again have a decided advantage in the special teams department this week.

*No true freshman has started a game this season…only six have played and most of them have barely seen the field…sign of a weaker recruiting class than anticipated or a roster that is finally filling up after the sanctions?

*Coaching experience is still a concern for SC. It was apparent early that SC should have beaten Colorado by 3+ touchdowns and without that amazing 42 yard reception by Rogers late in the game, SC may have lost the game…

*Spoke to a Pac-12 college hoops assistant: “If Sam Darnold focused on hoops, he would have been successful Pac-12 level player.  Great athlete.”

*Darnold is the first SC freshman QB to throw for 300-plus yards in consecutive games since Todd Marinovich.