USC, Arizona eye Pac-12 South title runs ahead of showdown
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California emerged from the difficult first half of its schedule with a fairly brutal record, at least by the Trojans' perennially lofty standards.
Still smarting from a narrow loss at rival Notre Dame, USC (3-3, 2-1 Pac-12) spent this week resetting and refocusing on the six conference games ahead, starting with a visit from Khalil Tate and Arizona (4-2, 2-1) on Saturday night.
Even after three losses in their last four games, the Trojans have a share of the Pac-12 South lead and every chance to make the conference title game. Coach Clay Helton's job security almost certainly hinges on a strong finish to the season — and if the Trojans lose at home to the Wildcats, big changes will be almost unavoidable.
The Trojans are choosing to see the opportunity instead of the crisis.
"We're 0-0, and we've got six Pac-12 games coming up with huge implications," center Brett Neilon said. "We've got to go 6-0 here. It feels a little different in the second half (of the season). It's very important. The first half of the season is very important, but the Pac-12 championship is still up for grabs, and these next six games are going to decide who goes and who doesn't."
The feelings are much the same around the Wildcats, who have an opportunity for a breakthrough Pac-12 victory under second-year coach Kevin Sumlin. USC has won its last six meetings with Arizona since 2012, but five of those games were quite close, with the Wildcats just unable to make the final plays necessary.
"They're averaging 430 (yards) a game and they've gone through three quarterbacks," Sumlin said of the Trojans. "They've got good players. They've got good scheme. They've played four Top 25 teams, so they've been in big games. They've been tested. They've won some, they've lost some, (but) they've got players who have been in big ballgames."
Despite a solid record, Arizona is also coming off a discouraging loss. The Wildcats fell 51-27 at home against Washington, which rallied from a halftime deficit for a blowout win while forcing four Wildcats turnovers.
Here are more things to know about the Cats in the Coliseum:
Inglewood native Khalil Tate finally gets the final chapter of his eventful history against USC. The Arizona quarterback made his first collegiate start against the Trojans, going 7 of 18 for 58 yards and committing two turnovers as a 17-year-old freshman in 2016. Tate then led a huge second-half rally at the Coliseum in 2017, rushing for 161 yards and passing for 146 yards with three total TDs and two interceptions in a comeback that fell just short. Tate had 270 total yards with two touchdowns and another interception last season against the Trojans, leading another comeback that didn't result in a win. Tate comes into his last shot to beat the Trojans after a disappointing performance against the Huskies in which freshman Grant Gunnell came off the bench and led a late touchdown drive.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis will start at home for the first time since suffering a concussion on the opening series against Utah. The freshman from Scottsdale is fourth in the nation after completing 75% of his throws, along with seven touchdown passes and four interceptions. Slovis' best performance still was his first career start against Stanford in early September, but offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is confident in his star pupil's growth. Arizona's passing defense has yielded 320.7 yards per game this season.
Arizona running back J.J. Taylor returned last week from a leg injury that kept him out for most of the Wildcats' two previous games. Opponents are averaging 197.2 yards per game on the ground against the Trojans, and Notre Dame had ample success on the ground last week against USC, both from running backs and quarterbacks. Taylor and Tate could be poised to run wild against the Trojans' defense.
Opponents have begun double-teaming USC receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who was dominant early in the season. The Trojans haven't given up on getting the ball to Pittman, but it opens up playmaking opportunities for Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns if the USC line can keep Slovis upright for long enough. "We try to get (Pittman) touches and let him be special when the ball is in his hand," Harrell said. "But we've got a lot of weapons, and we'll try to use them."