B.J. Denker figured Southern California would come out sizzling for its new coach. He figured if Arizona could survive that early surge, the Wildcats could rally to ruin Ed Orgeron's debut.
Denker was right about how Thursday night went down. The Wildcats just waited a few minutes too long to get going.
Nelson Agholor caught seven passes for 161 yards, Javorius Allen rushed for two touchdowns and USC got off to an impressive start under interim coach Orgeron with a 38-31 victory.
Denker passed for 363 yards and four touchdowns for the Wildcats (3-2, 0-2) in their second straight loss. Although Arizona outscored USC 28-10 from the final minute of the first half onward, Denker couldn't lead the Wildcats out of their early 25-point hole.
"It was 100 percent tempo," said Denker, who went 28 for 44. "If we had the tempo and pace in the first and second quarters that we had late in the third and the fourth, it would have been a different game."
Ka'Deem Carey rushed for 138 yards in his eighth straight 100-yard game for Arizona, while Nate Phillips and David Richards also caught touchdown passes. Once the Wildcats recovered from the USC offense's biggest plays early on, they controlled much of the second half.
"We waited too late to get going," Arizona linebacker Marquis Flowers said. "We waited too long to try to execute, and we ran out of time. We made mistakes, and they saw the mistakes we made."
Cody Kessler passed for 297 yards and two TDs as the revitalized Trojans (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) survived Arizona's second-half rally to win for the stalwart defensive line coach who replaced the fired Lane Kiffin on Sept. 29. Orgeron set a familial mood from the moment USC entered the Coliseum, gathering the players in a circle at midfield for an emotional pep talk and prayer.
"We love Coach O like a dad," linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "We look up to him. That's a great feeling. That's the bond you want to have with your family."
Agholor caught a 62-yard touchdown pass and Tre Madden had a 63-yard TD catch in the first quarter for the Trojans, who had the Coliseum rocking as they roared to a 25-point lead in the first half.
After Garic Wharton caught his second TD pass for Arizona with 4:18 to play, Silas Redd punctuated his season debut for USC with seven consecutive clock-draining runs for 43 yards in a drive that began at the Trojans 4, allowing USC to ensure a sideline shower for Orgeron and frustration for Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez.
"Everyone knew they were going to run the ball," Rodriguez said. "They were running to the short side with great success all game. We didn't get off blocks, and we didn't tackle. But give them credit ... and give Lane Kiffin credit. Lane recruited these guys, and they're talented, and they played hard. But we didn't execute at times, missed some coverages and some opportunities. I know we'll be sick when we watch the film."
Nearly 12 days after Kiffin's stormy four-year tenure ended in a dark airport parking lot, the Trojans played with passion and excitement for Orgeron, who promised to return fun to a season dominated by drudgery. The Coliseum crowd that booed frequently last month amid chants of "Fire Kiffin!" gave several standing ovations to their Trojans in a rare Thursday night game at the historic stadium.
Clay Helton, the Trojans' new play-caller in Kiffin's absence, dialed up an aggressive game plan that succeeded even without star receiver Marqise Lee, who sat out with a sprained knee. Justin Davis also rushed for a score for the Trojans, who racked up 546 total yards.
Although USC had just two healthy scholarship receivers, Helton regularly called long, daring pass plays — something the notoriously conservative Kiffin rarely tried. USC managed just one pass play longer than 60 yards under Kiffin this season, but the Trojans had two TD catches longer than that in the first 10 minutes against the Wildcats.
Kessler threw a long pass down the middle on the Trojans' first play of their second series. Agholor, the speedy sophomore who replaced Robert Woods in this season's starting lineup, sprinted to make a fingertip catch just 3:39 in, stunning a crowd starved for exciting football.
Madden caught a midrange pass over the middle a few minutes later and romped through the Arizona secondary.
Davis scored from 11 yards out in the second quarter before Allen made a high dive into the end zone for a 28-3 lead. Phillips slipped behind USC's defense for a 57-yard touchdown catch 56 seconds before halftime.
Richards caught a 9-yard TD pass with 6:48 to play, and Wharton pulled the Wildcats within seven points before Redd ran out the clock with a 10-yard run on third-and-8 with 1:38 left. Redd, the Penn State transfer who led USC in rushing last season, had 80 yards on the ground after missing the first five games of this season with a persistent knee injury.