LOS ANGELES -- For me, the highlight of the USC-Colorado game last weekend was only seen by those in attendance. After Matt Barkley and Robert Woods set their respective records, the video screen showed a segment where numerous big stars came on and congratulated the guys. Keyshawn Johnson, Pete Carroll, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Luc Robitaille, and my favorite -- Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer on the field at a Raiders practice -- gave their wishes to the clear surprise of Barkley and Woods. It was very cool.
One comment that Palmer made in his video is worth mentioning this week. He said, “Beat Oregon, beat Notre Dame and get into that national championship game.” The crowd erupted in applause, and it was a great moment. But there are a few other teams on the schedule, and none of them will be easy, including a big game this week at Arizona.
Undeniably, the biggest game on the calendar for the Trojans since the schedule came out is next weekend, when Oregon comes to the Coliseum. And with the game being just over a week away, it’s understandable that many would be waiting in anticipation of that matchup, with Trojans fans hoping USC can upset the Ducks and propel themselves back into the national championship dialogue. And with Arizona sitting with a marginal 4-3 record, it’s easy to assume that it must be nothing but a formality, right? Well, don’t look ahead so quickly.
Let’s rattle off some Wildcat stats and facts:
1. Yes, they are 4-3. Their three losses -- Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford -- are all ranked teams (including two top-seven teams) the Cats played in a brutal three-week stretch. Even in those losses, the Wildcats averaged more than 40 points per game. They took Stanford to overtime and only lost to the Beavers by a field goal. The only ranked team the Trojans have played so far is Stanford, and USC lost by seven.
2. Can you say offense? Arizona is averaging 549 yards of total offense, ranking No. 5 nationally, ahead of Oregon. The highest-ranking offense the Trojans have played so far is Syracuse's, which ranks 42nd.
3. The passing spread that Rich Rodriguez brings to town is averaging 352 yards per game through the air, ranking fifth nationally. Quarterback Matt Scott is ranked fourth nationally in passing yards and is completing more than 64 percent of his passes.
4. While they run a pass-first spread offense, they also run the ball, running for 196 yards per game. Running back Ka'Deem Carey is a fantastic back who ranks 16th nationally in rushing yards with more than 120 yards per game.
Don’t get me wrong -- the Trojans are the better team. The fact they are still struggling to play a complete game in all three phases is troubling, but if both teams play their best games, the Trojans should win. Arizona has some great individual players, but across the board, Arizona’s roster isn’t nearly as strong. Rodriguez does have his team playing well, though, and if they are anything, it’s dangerous. Very dangerous.
Now with all of that said, I do believe that this game couldn’t come at a better time for the Trojans. There is no offense like Oregon's, but Arizona's is as close as it gets in the conference, and the game plan for beating Arizona is going to be very similar to that for the Ducks. So facing the Cats is, in essence, a great warmup game. Arizona will put pressure on the Trojans' defense unlike any that it has faced, and the Trojans must ensure that each defender takes care of his responsibility and doesn’t get out of position trying to do too much. The front four needs to get penetration and create havoc. The back seven must tackle well in space. They must play fast. They can’t commit penalties. And the Trojans offense has to be a weapon to control the line of scrimmage, control the clock, make every drive count with scores and force the tempo in the Trojans' favor.
All of this will be great preparation for the Ducks next weekend, but if USC is looking ahead at all, it may find itself in a game that goes down to the wire where anything can happen. Nothing would make the Oregon game less meaningful than coming home from Tucson with a loss. This is the time of year in college football when strange things happen. USC needs strange things to happen to other teams (Kansas State, for example), but needs to focus on each week as it comes from here on out. Only by doing that will the Trojans be well positioned for Nov. 3.