USC rediscovers running game before playing Arizona
Miscues and missed opportunities on offense and special teams plagued USC in back-to-back losses at Stanford and Texas. Improved play in both phases proved critical to the Trojans' 39-36 win Week 4 over Washington State.
USC (2-2, 1-1 Pac-12 Conference) now heads to Arizona (2-2, 1-0) in Week 5 for its first Pac-12 South division game, aiming to put together its most complete effort of the season.
The Trojans had sputtered to three and 14 points in their previous two outings, struggling particularly in the run game. They answered against Washington State with running backs Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr totaling 78 and 77 yards, with averages of 6 and 9.6 yards per carry.
"The two runners did an excellent job," USC coach Clay Helton said. "It was important to create balance. ... Balance helps us. That's what we are."
Helton has long preached about balance being USC's offensive identity, but its absence against Stanford and Texas was glaring, as true freshman quarterback JT Daniels was forced to take on a heavier burden in the passing game.
His 26 attempts against Washington State were a career-low, and the threat of a run game opened the field to make Daniels' passes more meaningful. He tallied a career-high three touchdowns in the win, with each going to a different wide receiver: Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
"It comes down to more practice time and getting used to each other more and more," Daniels said, knowing where they want me to put the ball and that they're going to go up and get it every time it's there."
The diversity of USC's corps of receivers and growing chemistry with Daniels should come into play at Arizona. The Wildcats lost defensive back Dane Cruikshank to the NFL, and multiple injuries, including to starting cornerback Jace Whittaker, has compounded Arizona's adjustments in the secondary early into the season.
With the offense taking significant steps forward, USC also moves forward with momentum on special teams. The Trojans sealed their Week 4 win with a special teams play, when defensive tackle Jay Tufele burst up the middle to block Washington State's would-be overtime-forcing field goal attempt.
"It's a block that we've had in our package a long time," Helton said. "We put it in this week special and credit John Baxter. He had it based on which hash and which gap. The kids knew exactly what to do."
Now for USC, the challenge is repeating those efforts -- while also delivering on defense. Washington State built a 30-17 lead in the second half, attacking a thin USC secondary with a variety of intermediate passing routes.
Arizona experienced early growing pains on offense, adjusting to a new scheme with coach Kevin Sumlin and coordinator Noel Mazzone, but the Wildcats blended pass-and-run effectively in a 35-14 rout of Oregon State on Saturday. Running back JJ Taylor's 284 yards rushing worked in concert with quarterback Khalil Tate's two touchdown passes.
--RB Vavae Malepeai led USC with 13 carries for 78 yards, and scored a pair of touchdowns in the win over Washington State. Malepeai and Stephen Carr now appear to be the main guys in USC's running back rotation, with Aca'Cedric Ware only garnering a single touch in Week 4.
--C Toa Lobendahn, who has played every position across USC's offensive line, has settled into center as his primary role. But Lobendahn and true freshman quarterback JT Daniels had repeated exchange issues in USC's win over Washington State, resulting in busted plays and huge losses of yardage.
--DE Christian Rector missed the matchup with Arizona a season ago but could be integral this year when it comes to generating pressure on Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate. Rector has three quarterback hurries on the year and a forced fumble.
--DE/LB Porter Gustin missed the first half of last week's game, serving a suspension due to a targeting penalty in the Week 3 loss at Texas. Gustin's presence on the line resulted in a significant uptick in pressure on WSU QB Gardner Minshew, who operated from a clean pocket much of the first half. Gustin will again be vital to the defensive effort, containing the edge against Arizona's multifaceted run game.
--S Bubba Bolden's suspension has not yet been lifted. He's likely to miss his fifth game.
--S Isaiah Pola-Mao had surgery on his injured shoulder last week, ending his season.