Arizona's 39-36 win over USC last season was a sign of things to come for the Trojans.
It's the beginning of the Ed Orgeron era at USC when the Trojans (3-2, 0-2) host Arizona (3-1, 0-1) on Thursday night in a Pac-12 Conference clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Both teams are in dire need of a victory to remain in the hunt for the Pac-12 South Division title, but for USC, the game is doubly important because it's the first to be played since Lane Kiffin was pulled off the team bus and given the heave-ho following a 62-41 blowout loss at Arizona State on Sept. 28.
With Orgeron, the former Ole Miss coach who was responsible for USC's defensive line, now at the helm, there's a high level of uncertainty as to what to expect from the Trojans.
It's hard to imagine it can go much worse for a once-proud program which began the 2012 season ranked No. 1 in the nation only to go 10-8 since.
For Arizona, a win would be the team's first since Sept. 14 when it clubbed UTSA 38-13. Since then, the Wildcats have played just one game, a 31-13 rain-soaked loss at Washington, with bye weeks on both sides of that setback.
Arizona beat a then 10th-ranked USC team 39-36 in Tucson last season, doing so despite Trojans wide receiver Marqise Lee's Pac-12 record of 345 receiving yards.
Time: 10:30 p.m. ET
Place: Los Angeles (Calif.) Coliseum
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: Arizona IMG Sports Network, ESPN Radio (USC)
Spread: Despite the coaching turmoil USC is still listed as a six-point favorite, according to sports betting site Bovada.
Find balance on offense
Arizona didn't need to throw much in their first three cupcake games, but when they did, they looked bad doing so. The Wildcats did need to air it out in their last game at Washington and looked even worse.
Senior B.J. Denker is mostly responsible for a passing attack that is third-from-the-bottom in the country in passing efficiency, and with USC being one of the better rush defense squads, Arizona is going to have to find a way to move the ball through the air.
Pressure the pocket
The struggles USC has had at quarterback aren't nearly as bad as what Arizona has experienced, but the expectations are much higher at USC, so it seems like the QB situation is a disaster.
Arizona can exploit this by putting pressure on Cody Kessler, who was sacked four times and forced into two interceptions in the Trojans' 62-41 win two weeks ago at Arizona State. Arizona's pass defense is among the top in the nation right now, but that won't remain the case if it lets Kessler get comfortable.
Shake off the cobwebs
By the time the game kicks off, it will be 12 days since Arizona last played. That's the same as USC, but prior to that, it had been two weeks since the Wildcats saw game action. A strange scheduling quirk gives Arizona two byes in a three-week span, which could lead to some rusty play at the outset of this one.
Make the change worth it
The firing of Lane Kiffin is being looked at by many as just what USC needs to get its season turned around. That puts Arizona, the first opponent for the Trojans, solidly in the spotlight.
It's a scenario eerily similar to what the Wildcats put UCLA through about two years ago when, after firing Mike Stoops before a bye week, Arizona blew out UCLA at home on a nationally televised Thursday night game.
A similarly dominant performance could be the perfect way to justify Kiffin's furlough.
Embrace Big O
Ed Orgeron's previous head coaching stint was a disaster. He went 10-25 in three seasons at Mississippi and hasn't gotten a serious sniff at another top gig since.
He's probably not on the short list USC athletic director Pat Haden has put together of potential coaches, but for the time being, this is Orgeron's team. Don't expect wholesale changes, but it should be a more lighthearted and free-wheeling sideline under Big Ed.
Force Arizona to throw
Ka'Deem Carey is one of the hardest runners in the game, and while he's not hard to catch, he's very tough to bring down.
That being said, right now he's Arizona's only reliable option on offense, so if USC can limit his big runs, it can force struggling quarterback B.J. Denker to throw more than he wants.
The Wildcats receivers are still green and can be manipulated by good corners, especially if they know the ball is going to come their way.
As the reigning FBS rushing champion and a consensus All-American as a sophomore, Carey is on a streak of seven consecutive 100-yard rushing games dating back to his Pac-12 record 366-yard outburst against Colorado.
He's averaged more than 192 per game in that stretch, and in three games this season—Carey was suspended for the Wildcats' opener—he's averaging 143.7 (good for fifth in FBS) to go with five touchdowns.
Carey ran for 119 yards and a TD on 28 carries last year against USC and will likely get 25-plus carries this time out.
Denker is one of the country's most dangerous quarterbacks but only when he tucks it and runs. He's averaging 70 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry, numbers that are at least partially making up for his dismal statistics throwing the ball.
Arizona's coaches say Denker has been read the riot act about his play and got plenty of extra work during the Wildcats' bye week, but until he shows it in game action that he can pass effectively, Arizona will struggle.
Lee was as close to unstoppable as you could be in last year's Arizona-USC meeting. He had 16 catches for 345 yards, surpassing the previous Pac-12 single-game yardage record before halftime.
But with the Trojans offense sputtering this season, Lee's numbers are down, and he's gotten the "disappearing superstar" tag put on him.
He had a solid (seven catches, 92 yards) last time out against Arizona State, but he also sprained a knee in that game. If Lee can't go, USC's passing offense could all but disappear.
While Lee is questionable, the Trojans are expected to get running back Silas Redd on the field for the first time all season. Redd, who was USC's leading rusher in 2012, had offseason knee surgery, but this week went through full-contact drills, according to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.
The addition of Lee to a backfield that already includes Tre Madden and Justin Davis could mean Arizona's defense is in for a heavy helping of run plays.
With Silas Redd likely returning to the USC lineup for the first time since offseason knee surgery, the Trojans could be featuring a three-back attack with Redd joining Tre Madden and Justin Davis.
But that hasn't kept interim coach Ed Orgeron from wishing he had even more talented runners, most notably the one he'll be seeing face his team Thursday:
Ed Orgeron said he wishes Ka'Deem Carey was on his team. Said he's tough, strong runner who is very well coached.— Daniel Berk (@DSBerk) October 8, 2013
Arizona's roster includes plenty of players who hail from Southern California, many of whom are starters for the Wildcats. That includes starting quarterback B.J. Denker, who talked about his distaste for USC football with TucsonCitizen.com reporter Anthony Gimino:
I grew up a UCLA fan. I can’t stand USC. I hate USC. Ever since I was a kid, we were a UCLA family. But, it’s a hometown team, so it’s going to be good. I have over 100 family and friends coming. A lot of our guys are from Southern California, especially in the L.A. area, so we’re using that as motivation — hey, we didn’t get recruited there, let’s beat our hometown team.
It should be a different atmosphere at the Los Angeles Coliseum for this game, and not just on the sideline.
According to USC's weekly media notes, the Arizona-USC game "will be the first-ever
non-Thanksgiving or non-bowl Thursday game USC has played in the Coliseum."
While at first this sounds like an overly wordy non-milestone, it does mean the school had to change its game day procedures both on campus and in terms of transportation to the off-campus venue:
Tailgating or picnicking will not be permitted on campus, no exceptions.
USC has partnered with CID Entertainment to provide a "Park & Ride" Trojan Express Shuttle Bus service for the USC-Arizona game. Shuttles will be available at convenient pick-up and drop-off locations in the greater Los Angeles and Orange County metro area.
With the prospect of its first 0-3 start in conference play since 2000 looming with a loss to Arizona, talk has already begun on whether USC will make a bowl game this season. Because the Trojans play 13 games this year due to its season-opening trip to Hawaii, they would need to win at least seven games.
Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News broke down what USC's postseason chances are at this point:
The Trojans figure to win road games at California and Colorado. They also should be favored against Utah at the Coliseum. Things get trickier after that. USC will be an underdog at home against Stanford and UCLA. And the Oregon State road game has been a real challenge over the past 10 years.
This leaves two games: Notre Dame in South Bend and Arizona at the Coliseum. USC needs to win at least one of those games.
USC 28, Arizona 23
The circumstances surrounding this game have all the makings of either a rise-up-for-the-new-coach blowout win for USC or a new-coach-same-result letdown loss for the Trojans.
Having been on the other side of this scenario two years ago, Arizona's upperclassmen probably groaned when learning Lane Kiffin had been fired, knowing what looked like a vulnerable USC team could now be turning into a group with nothing to lose.
USC needs to channel the loosey-goosey mentality interim coach Ed Orgeron has instilled in practice since taking over. He wants the kids to have fun, not take things too seriously, and that should translate to happy results on the field.
Arizona is still trying to answer questions left unresolved from a weak nonconference schedule followed by just one game in the past four weeks. The Wildcats will probably have a few more question marks after this one.