warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

USC Football Behind Enemy Lines - Q&A With Arizona Writers

Aaron Fischman |
September 29, 2011 | 5:55 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

The Wildcats hope to gain their first FBS victory of the season. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Wildcats hope to gain their first FBS victory of the season. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Arizona Wildcats (1-3) will meet the USC Trojans (3-1) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday afternoon.

Quarterback Nick Foles leads a potent passing attack for the Wildcats, but the team has struggled to get their running game going. In addition, the Arizona defense has proved incapable of stopping the run in their last three games, which they've lost to Oklahoma State, Stanford, and Oregon, respectively. All three of those most recent opponents are in the Associated Press Top 10. 

The Trojans are also hungry for a victory, as they return home. After fighting back to take a 22-21 lead midway through the third quarter at Arizona State, the Trojans surrendered 22 unanswered points and fell to the Sun Devils 44-23 last Saturday.

The Trojans outgained the Sun Devils in terms of yardage, but turned the ball over at inopportune times. Three of USC's turnovers came inside the Sun Devils' 25-yard line; the fourth turnover, a Matt Barkley interception, resulted in an Arizona State defensive touchdown. The Trojans committed four turnovers last week and were unable to force any takeaways. 

In a losing effort, RB Marc Tyler had a huge day on the ground, rushing for 149 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.  

Arizona comes into Saturday's game having dropped seven straight games against FBS schools, carrying over from last season.

In last year's meeting in Tucson, Tyler ran for 160 yards and a touchdown en route to a 24-21 Trojans victory. To his credit, Nick Foles kept the Wildcats close by throwing for 353 yards and three touchdowns. 

To help preview this upcoming matchup, Ryan Finley of the Arizona Daily Star and Jason Scheer of WildcatAuthority.com have graciously agreed to join us. 

1. It’s a little difficult to assess the Wildcats' quality of play just by looking at their 1-3 record, because their three losses have all come against Top 10 opponents. After watching those games, how good are this year's Wildcats? What are the team's strengths and weaknesses so far?

Ryan Finley: I think the frustrating part through four games is that none of us really know how good - or bad - this team is. We do know, however, that they can throw the ball as well as any team in the Pac-12, and that quarterback Nick Foles is as good as advertised.

Defensively, the Wildcats have been just brutal, especially against the run. Part of that has to do with injuries - they’re currently without a starting linebacker, cornerback, safety and defensive tackle - but a lot of its effort and execution. This team just hasn’t been making stops, forcing turnovers or disrupting any plays.

Jason Scheer: It is definitely difficult to gauge the team yet because of the quality of the opposition. Arizona's offense will be just fine, but the defense has been lacking in a big way. The defense as a whole has to be considered the weakness of this team due to the difficulty it has had stopping the run.

As far as strengths go, Arizona's passing attack is formidable, led by Nick Foles. He has yet to throw a pick, and when he and the receivers are on, the offense can be very difficult to stop.

We likely will find out a lot about Arizona because, no offense to USC, but the Trojans are probably weaker than Arizona's three major opponents so far.

USC RB Marc Tyler (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
USC RB Marc Tyler (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
2. In the last three games, Arizona's run defense has struggled immensely. Coach Mike Stoops said last week, "We can't commit any more guys to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. I don't know what else to do." Heading into Saturday's meeting with Marc Tyler and the Trojans, how do you think defensive coordinator Tim Kish plans to mitigate this problem?

Finley: My guess? Blitzing more. The Wildcats tried, with mixed results, to blitz in their Week 2 loss to Oklahoma State.

If there is a bright side for Arizona heading into this game, it’s that USC is fairly predictable in what it likes to run and how it tries to beat teams. Compared to the flash-and-dash of Oklahoma State and Oregon and the formation-happy offense at Stanford, the Trojans' pro-style set is downright vanilla. That should make things a bit easier for Arizona to gameplan for. 

Scheer: It is almost up to the players at this point because Stoops is right. The players aren't tackling well at all. My guess is Arizona continues to try to load the box and leaves it up to their secondary.

Arizona got more aggressive against Oregon late and it had some success. I would look for the occasional blitz with a bit more aggressiveness by the linebackers.

3. In his third year as starting quarterback, senior Nick Foles has put up impressive numbers through the first four games, completing 70.5 percent of his passes for 1,447 yards, 10 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Where do you think Nick Foles ranks among Pac-12 quarterbacks and nationally?

Finley: Foles' numbers can be misleading, if only because he's asked to throw so many high-percentage passes in lieu of a running game and because he's been throwing with the Wildcats trailing all season.

Still, I consider Foles — and USC’s Matt Barkley, for that matter — to be in the Pac-12's second tier of quarterbacks, behind Andrew Luck. Most years, a player with Foles' or Barkley's skill set would be the best quarterback in the conference. But Luck is once-in-a-generation player. 

Scheer:  I am a big Foles fan and think the spread offense takes away from the credit he deserves. Sometimes he tries to do too much, but it is hard to blame him. Arizona is going to miss him in a big way next season. He is right there with anybody not named Andrew Luck in terms of what he can do and the games he can keep Arizona in.

Arizona QB Nick Foles (BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons)
Arizona QB Nick Foles (BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons)
4. Foles has been asked to pass a whopping 45.8 times per game. Part of that can be explained by the huge deficits the Wildcats have found themselves in, but even in the Wildcats' big win over Northern Arizona, Foles attempted 42 passes. In what ways can the team diversify its offensive attack? Or do you expect the offense to be dominated by the pass all season?

Scheer: Stoops has made no secret that he believes this is a pass-first team. Arizona will use the pass to open the run and proceed from there. It badly wants a rushing attack, but until it gets one, the passing attack will dominate.

Arizona is going to win or lose with the passing attack, as it should, based on strengths.

5. Running backs Keola Antolin and freshman Ka'Deem Carey have largely split carries this season. How do their running styles differ? Do you see either as emerging as the primary back this year?

Finley: Antolin is a tiny (5-foot-8-inch) bowling ball of a back, a north-south runner who isn’t afraid to take on contact. (Want proof? Just watch the hit that former USC safety Taylor Mays put on him two years ago).

Carey, a true freshman from Tucson, tries to make defenders miss. I see the two backs splitting snaps for the time being, with Carey eventually taking over as the featured back. He has the ability to be special. 

Scheer: I think Antolin will be splitting carries with Ka'Deem Carey by the end of the season. Carey is a more talented and explosive back, while Antolin's size is becoming more of an issue.

As long as the line is struggling, Carey is going to be the better back because of his ability to create. Antolin is still dangerous at times, but Carey has been better.

6. Junior kicker Jaime Salazar has made just one of four field goal attempts. Senior Alex Zendejas has had eight PAT tries blocked throughout his college career. How, if at all, do the kicking struggles affect Coach Stoops' decision-making on third and fourth down?

Finley: Coaches replaced Salazar with Zendejas last week, and he was solid (by Arizona’s kicking standards) in the loss against Oregon. Placekicking is one of a half-dozen issues that seem to have ganged up on the Wildcats this year.

Arizona isn't talented, or perhaps lucky, enough to leave points on the field. So far this season, they've missed three field goals and two PATs as a team. 

Scheer: It doesn't affect him a ton. He remains generally conservative and still has some faith in them. Arizona might go for it a bit more on fourth and short but that remains to be seen.

USC football enters the Coliseum (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
USC football enters the Coliseum (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
7. Both USC and Arizona are especially hungry for wins after losing by more than 20 points last Saturday. Which team appears to need the win more? Why?

Finley: I think they both need one, to be honest. USC can get back on track with a victory, while the Wildcats absolutely need to pull out of their tailspin with winnable games against Oregon State, UCLA and Washington looming. For its psyche and what it means long-term, Arizona probably "needs" the win more. But USC is at home, and has better players on both lines.

8. What are the keys to Saturday’s game for the Wildcats if they are to pull off the road upset at the Coliseum?

Finley: Turnovers. Arizona’s defense has forced just two turnovers in its first four games, a telling stat when you consider that Mike Stoops is a defensive-minded coach who generally puts his most athletic players at cornerback and safety.

If the Wildcats can limit Marc Tyler's yards per rush, force Matt Barkley into some play-action passes and either sack him, intercept him or force fumbles, they have a chance. Otherwise, Arizona's nightmare start will continue.

Scheer: Arizona's defense has to step up in a big way. It needs a pass rush and turnovers, which hasn't happened. Somebody needs to step up and make a big play.

On offense, it needs some sort of rushing attack, and the receivers need to do a better job than they did against Oregon.

9. What’s your prediction for the game?

Finley: I think USC is just too big, too physical and too talented to lose at home against an Arizona team that has become a bit of a one-trick pony. I like the Trojans, 34-17.

Scheer: USC 38, Arizona 24. I think the game is close early but USC's run game helps pull the Trojans away late.

Best way to find more great content from Neon Tommy?

Or join our email list below to enjoy the weekly Neon Tommy News Highlights.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.