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Arizona Wildcats wary of USC’s special teams and new ‘numbers game’

Cody Kessler

That was Cody Kessler, wearing his usual No. 6, holding for Andre Heidari in a game earlier this month. Photo by Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez, asked this week about some of a “uniqueness” of USC’s special teams, didn’t initially take the bait.

He talked about the speed and athleticism of the Trojans’ returners. True enough. But that’s not the topic of the week.

The buzz is about how USC last week slipped a backup quarterback into the game as a holder, wearing a different jersey number. Cody Kessler, who is usually No. 6, was wearing the number of punter Kyle Negrete — No. 35 — when he held for an early extra point attempt.

Kessler took the snap and ran for a two-point conversion, although it was nullified because of holding.

When Kessler entered late in the game in mop-up time, he was wearing No. 6 again.

Since USC doesn’t have names on the back of its jersey, who knows who is really wearing what number, right?

“Everything’s within the college rules,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said this week.

Well, that’s been the debate. The Los Angeles Times cites the NCAA rule: “Numbers shall not be changed during the game to deceive opponents.”

And for what other purpose would you tell a player like Kessler before the game to change his jersey number, if not to somehow try to trick the opponent on special teams?

“Does it surprise me? No,” Rodriguez said, when asked more directly about the jersey swap. “But it’s within the rules, so you just have to be ready for it.”

USC’s special teams derive from the fertile mind of assistant John Baxter, the Arizona special teams coach under Dick Tomey in 1990 and 1991. Baxter had a million special teams ideas back then, and, clearly, has only increased his inventory.

Back in 1991, he spent an entire game setting up Stanford for a fake field goal.

Punter Adam Grand was the usual holder for Arizona that season, but backup quarterback Heath Bray made all the holds in warm-ups and in the game. That was the set-up to make Stanford think Grand was hurt or had lost his job.

There were no alarm bells when Bray went in to hold for a field goal from the left hashmark on fourth-and-goal from the 2 in the fourth quarter. Arizona furthered the deception by taking a delay-of-game penalty, presumably to improve the kicking angle. Stanford, now fully expecting a kick, declined the penalty.

Exactly what Arizona wanted.

This was the payoff: Bray took the snap and dived into the end zone in a 28-23 win.

So, Arizona and Rodriguez should expect anything and everything from Baxter on Saturday (12:30 p.m., Arizona Stadium).

USC star receiver Marqise Lee has a 100-yard kick return this season. The Trojans, who blocked seven kicks in each of the past two seasons, have three blocks this year. USC is always a threat to attempt a two-point conversion, initially spreading out the formation to see if the defense gets lined up properly. If not, it will snap the ball and go for 2.

“I know they have some of the best punt and kick returners in the country. That’s what makes us nervous,” Rodriguez said.

“Not only are they fast guys, but they hit it quick. When you have the athleticism that they have, their special teams are going to be really good because they have some fast guys on them.”

Meanwhile, Arizona’s coverage and return units are filled with walk-ons and freshmen, although Richard Morrison did find room for a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown last week.

“We’ve worked pretty hard on special teams,” Rodriguez said.

“In the past three weeks, I think we’ve down every phase every day, which is something a little different. Normally, I would do two or three of them. I think it’s helped a little bit.”

As for USC’s trickery with the numbers, Rodriguez just chuckled.

“Now, if they come out and somebody other than No. 7 is playing quarterback, that would be a real trick,” he said. “I would like for them to do that. I think Matt Barkley, no matter what jersey he has, will be the starting quarterback.”

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