Sep 28, 2019; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats quarterback Grant Gunnell (17) passes the ball during the second half against the UCLA Bruins at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

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Gunnell, Arizona aim big with No. 20 USC in town

No. 20 Southern California, after a thrilling comeback to dispatch its expected top competition in the Pac-12 South, moves on to play a conference foe it has largely dominated.

The Trojans (1-0, 1-0 Pac-12) will travel to Tucson, Ariz., to play Saturday against Arizona. The Wildcats will be making their season debut after their scheduled opener at Utah was canceled due to a coronavirus outbreak among the Utes.

USC needed two touchdowns in the final three minutes, wrapped around a successful onside kick, to eke past Arizona State 28-27 on Saturday in Los Angeles. The Trojans’ four turnovers and three failed fourth-down tries left coach Clay Helton eager to see improvement in the team’s second game.

“The things we have to clean up are the security of the ball and finishing drives in the red zone,” Helton said. “We all made mistakes in that game. We all took turns. It wasn’t just one guy.”

USC has won seven in a row over Arizona, including a 41-14 decision last season. The Trojans have scored at least 36 points in seven of the past nine meetings, and they could be on their way to a similar point total against a new-look, and largely inexperienced, Arizona defense.

The Wildcats have four new defensive assistants, including coordinator Paul Rhoads, a veteran coach who spent the past two seasons coaching defensive backs at UCLA. He is shifting the Wildcats from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but the preseason grad transfers of stalwarts Tony Fields II (West Virginia) and Colin Schooler (Texas Tech) left the expanded linebacker position perilously thin.

Inside linebacker Anthony Pandy is a good one, and Jalen Harris — needed to be a key pass rusher — moves from end to outside linebacker.

But this is a program that hasn’t finished better than 92nd nationally in total defense since 2013, and any progress could be measured in baby steps.

On Saturday, the Wildcats will have to deal with quarterback Kedon Slovis as well as one of the best receiver groups in the country and USC’s traditional stable of quality running backs.

Slovis was 40 of 55 for 381 yards in the opener, with Drake London (eight catches, 125 yards) and Amon-Ra St. Brown (7-100) each reaching 100 receiving yards. Tyler Vaughns and Bru McCoy combined for 12 catches and 104 yards.

Helton said he was pleased with how Slovis handled check-downs and didn’t force the ball into coverage.

“Hopefully, that’s where he continues to grow,” Helton said.

Third-year Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin has something else to worry about — an experienced USC defense, directed by first-year coordinator Todd Orlando.

“They’ve got veteran players and a veteran defensive coordinator that is going to bring it,” Sumlin said. “They faced a young quarterback last week and brought it. They’ve got another young one this week. I don’t think that’s going to change for him.”

USC, which posted seven tackles for loss last week, will take aim at Arizona quarterback Grant Gunnell, a sophomore who flashed potential in three starts last season. The running back group, led by Gary Brightwell, might be the best position group on the team.

But Arizona is pinning its hopes on the arm and leadership of Gunnell to turn around a program that lost its final seven games of 2019. Gunnell already was chosen a season captain.

“He’s really taking charge of the offense,” receiver Jamarye Joiner said, “and that’s what we need.”

–Field Level Media

Field Level Media
Sport Writer & Editor
FLM has a North American focus while tying into regional and hyper-local resources – providing the ability to distribute compelling content through the writing of professional journalists. As the U.S. sports content provider to dozens of digital and print media publishers through strategic partnerships with the likes of Reuters and Nielsen Sports, FLM covers the nuts and bolts with a breaking news desk and game event coverage.

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