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Arizona-USC: Five things to watch

Jake Fischer

Jake Fischer was at the center of a defense-only meeting last week. Photo by Rick Scuteri-US PRESSWIRE

Quarterbacks Matt Scott and Matt Barkley will have a lot to say about which team wins the Arizona-USC game this afternoon. But you knew that.

Let’s take a look at five other things that make not be so apparent:

1. Arizona’s defensive confidence

When the Wildcats got off the bus at the team hotel last week, junior linebacker Jake Fischer called for a defense-only players meeting. They gathered in a conference room. Fischer was the first one to speak.

“We really wanted to talk about where the defense is headed for the rest of the season. Because against Oregon State and Stanford, we didn’t play very well,” he said.

“We went in there and had an open discussion. I told them what I expected of everybody. Others stood up and had some things to say.

“I feel like if you’re going to be a really good defense, you have to trust the person next to you, and the best way to trust the person next to you is to get to know them. We really got all that out on the table, and I think we’ll be better because of it.”

Arizona did play well against Washington, coming up with four sacks and holding the Huskies scoreless in the second half of a 52-17 victory.

USC is a different beast, and the fundamentals about the UA defense haven’t changed — it is still a small, thin unit without an elite pass rusher. But the meeting was a rallying point with emotional and motivational benefits that could carry over into today.

“We just needed to quit playing like there’s an ‘I’ in team,” said defensive end Reggie Gilbert. “If one of us messes up, just pick him up and move on to the next play.”

2. Penalties

Here’s a big statistical edge for Arizona. The Wildcats lead the country in a somewhat obscure stat — opponent’s penalty yards. UA foes are averaging 98.3 penalty yards per game. USC is the most penalized team in the nation (9.86 per game for an average of 80 yards).

Is there a correlation between the opponent’s penalty and Arizona’s fast pace?

“The tempo maybe helps us create some opportunities that way,” coach Rich Rodriguez said.

“Sometimes, you get lucky. Or maybe guys just get frustrated. If guys continue to strain, sometimes they get frustrated against you and grab you. We talked quite a bit about that (before the last game). If we can strain a little bit and if you’re not making a play, at least try and cause a penalty.”

3. Turnovers

USC, in the Pete Carroll glory days, usually ranked at or near the top of the national stats in creating turnovers. The Trojans are back at it again.

They have created 22 turnovers, tied for the second-most in the country, and that is partly due to the disruptive play of the defensive line. That was supposed to be a weakness, especially after end Devon Kennard was lost for the season in late July to a pec injury, but junior college transfer Morgan Breslin has stepped in with seven sacks.

USC has intercepted 14 passes, four by linebacker Dion Bailey.

4. USC’s tight ends

With all the other offensive skill, it’s easy to forget how effective Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble can be. They have combined for a modest 21 catches, but five have gone for touchdowns.

Arizona has had difficulty matching up against the Pac-12′s best at tight end. Stanford’s Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz combined to make 11 catches for 205 yards and two touchdowns against the Cats. Last week, Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins made eight receptions for 110 yards and a score.

“I wish we had some magic pills to make our guys grow to 6-5 and be able to cover them,” Rodriguez said. “Isn’t it amazing in our league, the quality of the tight ends? I don’t think there is another league that’s close.”

Said Fischer about seeing talented tight ends again: “We have to step up and be as physical as they are, even more physical. Just try to lay the wood. That’s all you can try to do.”

5. The battle of No. 25s

Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey has been superb, earning some midseason All-America honors and being added to the watch list for the Maxwell Award, given to the nation’s top player. He has rushed for 155 times for 842 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Silas Redd has played an increasing role for USC after his preseason transfer from Penn State. Redd has 104 carries for 583 yards and six touchdowns, taking the lead role from Curtis McNeal.

It will be interesting to see if the Trojans try to establish the run in a more definitive way than Washington did last week against UA.

“When you can get one of the best running backs in the country to transfer in — that’s a pretty good deal for them,” Rodriguez said. “They are big up front and they have a couple of NFL guys on their offensive line. I think Redd is a sure-fire NFL guy as well.”

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