Arizona-USC: Five things to watch, prediction

Arizona's Khalil Tate ran for 161 yards against USC last season in a 49-35 loss.

Will USC assert its rushing attack vs. Arizona again?

The Arizona Wildcats play host to USC on Saturday night at Arizona Stadium (7:30 p.m. PT, ESPN) ... and let's get to it.

Here are five things to watch:

1. USC's rushing attack. Two things I liked when Clay Helton was made USC's head coach was that he was an adult in the room (after Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian) and he was more committed than either of those to use a physical running game.

That was missing from USC early this season.

But it's usually the Trojans' formula for success against Arizona.

USC has won five in a row in the series against the Wildcats, averaging 274 rushing yards per game. Last week, running back Vavae Malepeai rushed for 78 yards and Stephen Carr went for 77 yards against Washington State, helping take pressure off true freshman quarterback JT Daniels.

"It was important to create balance," Helton said. "Balance helps us. That's what we are."

Arizona is 102nd against the run, allowing 192.5 yards per game. The Wildcats will be challenged by a USC offensive line that starts three seniors, including center Toa Lobendahn.

2. USC QB JT Daniels. The 18-year true freshman, who graduated early from high school to enroll at USC, won the starting job out of the gate and has been ... OK.

He has completed 84 of 143 passes for 1,060 yards, with four touchdowns and three interceptions during USC's 2-2 start, which has included losses to Stanford and Texas. Arizona's defense has a long way to go to be as good as those two defenses.

True freshman quarterbacks aren't always the liabilities they used to be -- in recent years, see Alabama's Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, Georgia's Jake Fromm and new Clemson starter Trevor Lawrence -- but the hope for every opponent is to still rattle and confuse them with stuff they haven't seen before.

"That's a plus to us," Arizona sophomore linebacker Tony Fields II said of playing against a true freshman quarterback.

"I was once in that situation, and I was once confused and stuff like that. So I know how he is feeling. And he's the quarterback. So, he has to read defense and everything like that. So, that's what I think we should do -- disguise a lot so he can't know what we're in."

3**. Khalil Tate's time.** Arizona's junior quarterback has started twice against USC, getting his first career assignment about a week before his 18th birthday in 2016. He hasn't had much passing success against the school that wanted him as an "athlete" not a quarterback, completing 21 of 49 passes for 204 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

This game against his hometown team means a little something extra to him. Remember in the 2016 game, after he rushed for a touchdown, he flipped the ball past the official and then flashed a "Fight On" hand sign to the USC bench.

Tate did rush 26 times for 161 yards against the Trojans last season, but his legs have been limited this season, perhaps because of a combination of new scheme, a tender ankle suffered in Week 2 vs. Houston and Tate's own desire to prove himself as a passer.

But defenses still have to account for him, which helps open the offense.

"As soon as teams sleep on Khalil running the ball, there he goes. He's going to be gone for a touchdown," said receiver Shawn Poindexter.

4. USC receivers. The Trojans have one of the best wide receiver corps that Arizona will face, led by Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman and true freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown. Their size and strength will be problematic for Arizona's defense, especially in a moving-the-chains kind of way, which continues to be a major concern for the Cats.

Arizona is 110th out of 129 teams nationally in third-down defense, allowing teams to convert 44.9 percent. Complicating matters is that starting cornerback Jace Whittaker has been out for all but a few snaps against Southern Utah, and his return/status is uncertain.

Oh yeah, and getting a turnover or three would be nice.

5. Playing with emotion. Arizona is usually the little brother in this matchup, which it can put to good use in a chip-on-their-shoulder kind of way. Will the Wildcats be the harder-playing team?

"I thought we played extremely hard last Saturday," UA coach Kevin Sumlin said.

"With that, we have to be a smarter football team. The penalties, a couple of them in particular, we're not acceptable. We're playing hard, but we have to play smarter."

So ... who wins?

USC has the advantages in the run game, which is a good way to be.

The Trojans have rushed for a combined 651 yards against the Wildcats in the past two seasons; Arizona's defensive front might be somewhat improved, but it needs to greatly improved.

On the other side, Arizona moved the ball on the ground against Oregon State, but USC's Cameron Smith might be the best run-stuffing linebacker in the country. Arizona's offensive line is improved with the return of left tackle Layth Friekh in Week 3, but it hasn't seen the likes of USC.

USC 35, Arizona 28.

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