Tucson, AZ (SportsNetwork.com) - Finding themselves in the top 10 for the first time since 2010, the 10th-ranked Arizona Wildcats set their sights on their next victim, as they play host to the USC Trojans in a Pac-12 matchup at Arizona Stadium on Saturday evening.
Rich Rodriguez's Wildcats are coming off a monumental victory, knocking off then No. 2 Oregon in Eugene last week, 31-24. With the win, Arizona moved to a perfect 5-0 for the first time since 1998. At 2-0 in the league, the Wildcats are the only unbeaten squad in Pac-12 play.
Steve Sarkisian's Trojans stunned Stanford in Palo Alto in week two, but have failed to build on that, with losses in two of their last three games. Last weekend, it was a Hail Mary TD pass at the end of regulation by Arizona State that sent USC to a heartbreaking 38-34 loss. Now at 3-2 overall and 2-1 in conference play, there is little room for error the rest of the way for the Trojans.
"In the end, it's the old adage, 'That's why you play 60 minutes, that's why you play four quarters.' When you go up at the end of the game like that with three minutes left, it's never over," said Sarkisian following the loss to Arizona State. "You learn the hard way in games like this. I feel bad for our kids, I thought they fought hard, competed well and gave amazing effort. But we didn't get it done in the end."
USC holds a 28-8 edge in the all-time series with Arizona, although the teams have split the last two matchups.
Offensively, USC has had few problems moving the football. The team is generating an impressive 456.6 yards per game, with the pass (282.0 ypg) being the preferred mode of travel.
It has helped that quarterback Cody Kessler is playing almost flawless football. He has completed almost 70 percent of his passes this season, for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns, while not throwing a single interception in 2014.
Kessler has more than a few capable pass catchers to rely on, including wideout Nelson Agholor (35 rec, 324 yds, 3 TDs) and tailback Javorius Allen (19 rec, 250 yds, 1 TD).
Speaking of Allen, the 6-1, 220-pound junior has been a dominant force out of the backfield. In addition to his pass-catching skills, Allen is one of the top rushers in the Pac-12, rumbling for 576 yards (115.2 ypg) and four TDs, on 5.3 yards per carry.
While USC has playmakers at every level of the defense, the team has had lapses at times, including that fateful last play against the Sun Devils. On the season, opponents are averaging just under 400 yards per game, while putting up 21.6 ppg.
Senior middle linebacker Hayes Pullard paces the team with 35 total tackles. Senior safety Gerald Bowman isn't far behind with 34 stops. Junior Leonard Williams (30 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and sophomore Su'a Cravens (24 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2 sacks) are disruptive forces up the field.
The Wildcats will present real problems for USC, with one of the most productive and balanced attacks in the nation. Arizona ranks seventh in the nation in total offense, averaging 574.0 yards per game. The team nets over 200 yards rushing (224.0) and over 300 passing (350.0).
Rodriguez has the luxury of some of the Pac-12's top playmakers at the skilled positions, starting with quarterback Anu Solomon, who has completed 63.6 percent of his passes, for 1,741 yards and 14 TDs.
He has the luxury of passing the ball to wideout Cayleb Jones (32 rec, 525 yds, 6 TDs) and handing the ball off to tailback Nick Wilson (574 yds, 6.4 ypc, 6 TDs).
While the offense has flourished, the Arizona defense has been far less productive. Foes are averaging 26.6 ppg and have had great success passing against Arizona at just under 300 yards per game (296.6).
Still, sophomore middle linebacker Scooby Wright III has emerged as a true Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year candidate, making plays all over the field. He leads the team in tackles (58), TFL (8.0) and sacks (5.0), with two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Rodriguez is impressed with his defensive leader.
"I haven't watched enough of the other linebackers to see where he���s at, but he has been pretty good for us. He is a competitive guy that loves football. He epitomizes what we're trying to build in our program.
"I think Scooby is a talented guy; he is strong, he can run and he has a good feel for the game. I think a lot of his success comes from how much he loves football, how he prepares and works and his approach to the game. He is a great example for all our other guys on defense. I think he has that football instinct and he plays hard. He has a hard edge and he is able to flip that switch when he goes off the field. He has the perfect mentality that you want in a college football player."