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What to watch for in Arizona’s season opener against No. 20 USC

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Amy Bailey | The Daily Wildcat Arizona wide receiver Cedric Peterson (18) catches the incoming throw from Kahlil Tate (14) in the Arizona-USC game at the Arizona Stadium on Saturday September 29, 2018 in Tucson, Az.

It wasn’t exactly the plan for the Arizona Wildcats to host the No. 20 USC Trojans in its season opener. The Wildcats probably would have liked to have that first game against Utah under its belt but those plans changed when the Utes found several positive COVID-19 tests last Friday, Nov. 6, within its football team. The outbreak forced the Pac-12 to deem the game unplayable almost 24 hours before kickoff after Utah could not meet the minimum number of scholarship players on its roster. 

“Obviously we were disappointed,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “Our guys were extremely disappointed, but we’ve moved on. Friday seems like a long time ago right now, the way this year’s been gone. Another weekend of watching everybody else play becomes frustrating. We’ve got a great opportunity at home this weekend, and that’s where we’re at.”

The Wildcats have now shifted their focus to a USC team that looked shaky in its opening game against Arizona State last week. The Trojans escaped with a win but only after recovering an onside kick with 2:52 left in the game and scoring 14 points in the final three minutes to pull off a 28-27 win over the Sun Devils.  

Saturday’s game is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. in Tucson, Arizona and the game will be televised on FOX. Here are some things to watch for this weekend.

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An unexpected (or expected) exciting QB battle 

A pair of three-star quarterbacks entering their second year of college football doesn’t sound very exciting on paper, but if you’ve followed the Wildcats and the Trojans for the past few seasons, you may be expecting one of the best quarterback battles in the conference on Saturday.

Arizona quarterback Grant Gunnell has been the talk of the team during fall camp, and rightfully so. Gunnell entered his sophomore season after posting 1,239 passing yards and nine touchdowns to just one interception in limited playing time last season. With the departure of former starter Khalil Tate, Sumlin and the coaching staff have now handed the keys to Gunnell and made him the full-time starter this season. If you’re nervous about Gunnell getting the pregame jitters that comes with being the team’s new offensive leader, don’t be because Gunnell certainly isn’t worried about it.

“I see and feel pressure as something that drives me,” Gunnell said. “If you’re not feeling pressure, like those butterflies in your stomach, you don’t love football. You can ask anyone, that is kind of what drives you. And what you love about football is that nervous feeling where you have butterflies in your stomach. There is definitely pressure, but I wouldn’t say it is a negative thing.”

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USC head coach Clay Helton and the Trojans feel equally as excited about their man under center as well. Sophomore Kedon Slovis was USC’s brightest star last season after climbing the quarterback depth chart that was riddled with injuries last season and quickly carved out his role as the starting gunslinger. Slovis threw for 3,502 passing yards and 30 touchdowns with nine interceptions in his freshman season. His success carried over into this season, throwing for 381 yards and two touchdowns to one interception in USC’s season opener against ASU. 

Slovis is just a piece to this Trojan offense and Sumlin is well aware of how dangerous that unit can be.

“They’ve got a young quarterback that is playing at a high level,” Sumlin said. “You’ve got four receivers that are all different but all dangerous. We all know about [Amon-Ra] St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns, but the two young guys are bigger guys. They’ve got weapons all over the field, playing three different running backs that are all different … a line that’s returning a bunch of guys and eight starting returners on defense. This is a veteran team that’s already played a game and been in a close game, so they should have some confidence.”

How much will Arizona’s running game come into play?

It has quietly become one of Arizona’s strongest position groups this season, and although the depth chart took a hit with the injury of freshman Frank Brown Jr. and redshirt sophomore Bam Smith deciding to opt out of the season during fall camp, this unit should still expect to put out some consistent production this season — and that reliable play could start as early as this Saturday.

The Trojans had trouble stopping the run game last week against ASU, surrendering 258 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns to four different players. A whole 111 of those yards were put up by quarterback Jaden Daniels who often found himself scrambling out of the pocket and picking up easy yards. Gunnell isn’t exactly a dual-threat quarterback, but the opportunity to capitalize on Todd Orlando’s new defensive scheme is still there. 

“When you’re giving up that many rushing yards, that’s not a good thing with us,” Orlando told USC Athletics. “In the traditional tailback running game, if you’re not doing a good job, you have no chance at playing elite defense because nobody will throw the ball. They’ll just run it. … That’s where our emphasis is going to be this week. Let’s make sure that we stop the run game.” 

Sumlin released his depth chart before the team’s first game against Utah with the pecking order shaping out as senior Gary Brightwell being the starter followed by Michael Wiley, Jalen John and Nathan Tilford as rotational backups.

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Is another week of wacky special teams in the forecast?

We might have predicted one or two mishaps involving the special teams units last week in the Pac-12 since it was the start of the season. But I don’t think anyone would have expected that many significant errors to happen in last week’s set of games. 

Colorado saw two of its field goal attempts blocked by UCLA, Stanford kicker Jet Toner missed four field goals, Oregon State punter Caleb Lightbourn shanked two of his punts that both traveled under 25 yards and, of course, USC recovered the onside kick late in the fourth quarter against ASU that saved the game for the Trojans. 

Luckily Arizona didn’t get the opportunity last week to add its name to that laundry list of special teams disasters since they didn’t play, but the Wildcats have been very underwhelming when it comes to special teams for quite some time. Last season, Arizona was 11th in the conference in field goal percentage (58.8%) and 11th in the conference in average punt yards with 39.4 yards per punt. 

“Obviously last season we were very disappointed in how we finished the season,” special teams coach Jeremy Springer said. “The guys gave great effort. We didn’t perform as well as we needed to be to win games, and this offseason, we really took ownership of that as a core group as myself first, then putting that pressure on our punters to really work hard this offseason. … Those guys are all in. They’re all into Arizona. They’re all in for the fans. They’re all in for the players. They want to be the reason why we’re flipping field position and putting us in great position to win games.”


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