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Breakdown & Analysis of USC’s 41-14 Wildcat Whomping

October 20, 2019

USC’s 41-14 win over Arizona Saturday night contained quite the mixed bag. Kedon Slovis completed nearly 68 percent of his throws for 232 yards and two scores, true freshman running back Kenon Christon made an explosive first impression in the fourth quarter and the Trojans improved to 3-1 in Pac-12 South play. 

But, USC’s injury list is extensive. Talanoa Hufanga (shoulder), Stephen Carr (hamstring), Drake Jackson (ankle), Abdul Malik-McClain (shoulder), Markese Stepp (ankle) and Munir McClain (ankle) all suffered injuries.

“It’s bittersweet because the kids are playing extremely hard,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “I mean, you saw what they did at Notre Dame, which was a physical game on both sides. Came out here tonight with a chip on their shoulder and really something to prove. I’m sad for those six kids.”

In place of Palaie Gaoteote, sophomore linebacker Kana’i Mauga intercepted a pass and finished the game with a career-high 13 tackles.

“(Mauga’s) … just a guy that we can count on day in and day out,” Helton said. “It was like unleashing somebody that was just waiting for his chance, and I can’t tell you how happy I am for him and our team that we have a guy like this.”

Tyler Vaughns led the Trojans in receiving with seven catches for 73 yards and one score. Stepp carried the ball 13 times and gained 67 yards. Carr contributed another 33 yards on the ground. Arizona running back JJ Taylor rushed 16 times for 84 yards. Brian Casteel caught four passes and collected two touchdowns.

USC’s 27-point margin of victory was its largest since downing Arizona State by 31 in 2017. But, oh boy, this blowout victory was a wild one.    

Wacky first quarter   

A slow first quarter filled with all kinds of wackiness was the story of USC’s early performance Saturday night. Perhaps the weirdest sequence of USC’s first quarter featured redshirt junior long snapper Damon Johnson recovering a muffed Stanley Berryhill III punt.

That’s right -- a long snapper recovered the loose football. How many times do you hear that sentence in football? Since USC took over at Arizona’s 21-yard line, it was fitting for the Trojans to barely move the ball at all. After USC gained eight yards in four plays, Chase McGrath knocked in a 31-yard field goal to put the Trojans ahead 3-0 with 8:02 to play in the opening quarter.

Arizona’s sloppy offensive play continued with Casteel fumbling the ball away. USC took over at the Wildcat 34-yard line.

As the first quarter wound down, that turnover proved to be the momentum swinger USC needed to get its offense rolling. A Slovis-to-Pittman 9-yard score gave the Trojans a double digit advantage with just 23 seconds left. But, the bizarre first quarter ended with Hufanga being helped off the field by teammates with an apparent shoulder injury.

Tate struggles, Slovis settles in 

Khalil Tate and the Arizona offense weren’t able to find any sort of groove as the second quarter progressed, while Slovis commanded USC to a 10-play, 87-yard scoring drive. Stepp’s 12-yard dash-and-juke touchdown skamper extended the Trojans’ lead to 17-0.

Carr left the drive hobbled and didn’t return.

Without five defensive starters, USC entered halftime with just 67 yards rushing and 47 yards passing allowed. USC’s defensive effort pushed the Wildcats to bench Tate for freshman Grant Gunnell.

Tate finished the night completing 6-of-10 throws for 47 yards.

“We talked about getting to the quarterback,” Helton said. “And to have seven sacks on the night, I was really happy with the pressure. But, most importantly, just containing the quarterback.”

It’s no secret USC’s had issues with dual threat quarterbacks in the past. Helton credited defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast for the Trojans’ performance Saturday night, citing how Pendergast and the defensive staff studied how NFL teams defend athletic stars -- including Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson.

“You had the opportunity for a lot of upfield twist games,” Helton said. “You saw that a different package came in on third down on passing situations and different personnel. Malik was a part of that which is sad. He really did a nice job of creating pressure along with Hunter Echols.”

Gunnell finished 16-of-26 passing for 196 yards and two touchdowns in-place of Tate.

Tumultuous second half

USC’s injury bug ran wild in the third quarter, but the Trojans’ depth showed out. Jackson’s leg injury prompted redshirt freshman Abdul Malik-McClain, who produced a sack on the very next play.

Losing Jackson marked USC’s sixth starter going down -- Jackson, Hufanga, Gaoteote, Olaijah Griffin, Christian Rector and Greg Johnson. Just when there seemed to be no room left for injured Trojans, Stepp rolled his foot on a 14-yard gallup and needed to be assisted off the field. 

Quincy Jountti replaced Stepp and fumbled the ball on his first touch. Third quarter madness continued with Mauga picking off Gunnell’s first passing attempt, only to toss the ball in the air in celebration and draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

In perhaps the third quarter’s only “normal” series, Slovis found Pittman on play action for 54 yards and Vaughns finished off the drive with a 5-yard touchdown reception three plays later. The four-play, 60-yard drive took USC 1:17 to complete and embodied the prototypical Graham Harrell air raid drive -- a few quick-hitting plays covering the length of the field and ending in 6.

California State Sprint champion Kenan Christon’s first live-game action in cardinal and gold featured two huge fourth-quarter touchdown runs, one for 55 yards and the other for 30. Christon totalted 103 yards on eight carries.

When asked if it’s been tough for him to stay ready this season, Christon said, “It’s not tough at all. I’m here to help the team. Wherever they want me to go, I’ll go and play. I’m just trying to stay focused.”

Even with a 34-point lead, USC couldn’t escape committing penalties. Christon picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for his post-30-yard touchdown celebration. 

In Christon’s case, that kind of flag is understandable. Saturday night’s officials called the game tight and with the true freshman back scoring his first collegiate touchdowns, he was bound to show emotion.

USC just needs to clean up unnecessary penalties usually collected after big plays, because of how they set the Trojans back. Against teams like Arizona, there’s no issue. But, with Oregon and Arizona State on the horizon, USC can’t be making the same mistakes over and over.

What’s next

In terms of USC’s on-field performance, there’s one major thing to note and remember going forward from the Arizona win. For the first time in -- well, a long time -- the Trojans built an early lead and didn’t relinquish it. USC didn’t play down to the level of their competition and played a mostly-consistent four strong quarters of football.

Injuries are out of the Trojans’ control, and the fact six key players are hurt will challenge USC even more this week. With USC playing in Boulder Friday night, players like Magua and Christon will need to bring the same intensity they brought to the Arizona game.

Tags: USC Scoop
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