What the Arizona Wildcats did right and wrong at USC
LOS ANGELES — There were positives and negatives to take from Arizona football’s 38-31 loss at USC.
What Arizona did right
Offense more balanced
Prior to the Thursday’s game, Arizona’s offense consisted of running back Ka’Deem Carey. After their 38-31 loss to USC, the Wildcats now look to be a decent passing team.
Senior quarterback B.J. Denker threw the ball 44 times, completing 28. He easily set his career high in passing yards with 363 against the Trojans, and he didn’t turn the ball over once.
He struggled to throw it deep in the first half, but he found his grove in the second half with a more up-tempo style.
“If we’d had that tempo on offense in first two quarters, like we had on the last drive of the third and all of the fourth, we would have won,” Denker said.
Offense spreads the wealth
On Thursday, seven different Arizona receivers caught passes from Denker. Having a variety of receivers to throw to is a principle of the spread offense.
Different Wildcats receivers shone at different times throughout the game.
In the beginning, freshman Nate Phillips and Samajie Grant had key plays, while toward the end senior Terrence Miller and junior Garic Wharton were the go-to guys.
“We knew all season that we had talented guys,” Denker said of his receivers, “and the tempo was key.”
Trailing by a couple touchdowns, Arizona began to push the tempo. The late pressure put on the USC defense tired it out and clearly showed that what the Wildcats do best, and what will keep them in games in the future, is also what their offense is predicated on: just playing pitch and catch.
“When we got tempo going and we’re pitching and catching, we’re pretty good,” said head coach Rich Rodriguez.
What Arizona did wrong
Wildcats give up the long ball, again and again
USC’s fourth offensive play of the game set the tone for the Trojans’ offense for the rest of the game. A 62-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor from quarterback Cody Kessler wouldn’t be the last time the two hooked up for a long pass. At halftime, Agholor had four receptions on 128 receiving yards.
With All-American USC receiver Marqise Lee sitting on the sideline with a knee injury, the Arizona defense supposedly had it easy. But Agholor reminded Arizona on Thursday that he, too, is one of the country’s best receivers.
“[USC receivers] were just wide open,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t play as well as we’re capable.”
Agholor finished the game with 161 receiving yards on seven catches.
Kessler entered Thursday’s game as the starter, but on the hot seat. Through five games, the sophomore only was averaging 166.4 passing yards per game and had only thrown six touchdowns on the season. Kessler’s seat is now cool after his dominating performance against Arizona.
Kessler had time in the pocket and wasn’t pressured by the Wildcats’ defensive line, as he threw for 297 yards. He had 63-yard and 62-yard touchdown passes.
When Arizona and USC met at Arizona Stadium in Tucson last season, penalties crippled both teams. The Wildcats and Trojans each had moer than 100 yards of penalties in that game and had a combined total of 246 penalty yards.
The first half killed Arizona, as it committed five penalties for 52 yards. As a team, they didn’t commit a single penalty in the second half. Arizona outscored USC 21-10 in the second half.
“[The penalties] were very frustrating,” Rodriguez said, adding that they played a big role in Thursday’s outcome.
SWAT doesn’t live up to its name
In Arizona’s third-down SWAT defense, the most athletic and best overall defensive players are supposed to take the field on third down to force a turnover or punt. Thursday, the Wildcats’ third-down defense did not live up to its name. USC was 6-for-13 on third down against Arizona.
On numerous occasions, the Wildcats gave up big plays on third down, keeping the offense on the sideline and the Trojans driving — everything Rodriguez hates.“We have talented guys,” Rodriguez said, “but we’re not good enough to win and play bad.”
—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella