USC Trojans vs. Arizona Wildcats

USC quarterback Sam Darnold had his way with the Arizona defense in last year's matchup in Tucson.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

Here are three things to watch in the No. 22 Arizona Wildcats’ game vs. No. 17 USC in Los Angeles (Saturday, 7:45 p.m., ESPN), plus a score prediction and some pertinent preview links:

1. TALE OF THE TATE

This Khalil Tate is not that Khalil Tate. The Tate who made his first career start against USC last October was still 17 years old, still taking it all in, not ready to fully embrace the responsibilities of being a starting quarterback in big-time college football. His supporting cast – especially in the backfield – wasn’t what it is now either. The results were predictable: Tate scored early on a 3-yard run but couldn’t consistently move the ball. He threw an interception and lost a fumble. A game that was 7-7 late in the first quarter disintegrated into a 48-14 defeat. In a sign of how bad things were for Arizona, converted tight end Matt Morin finished the game at quarterback. Now, of course, Tate is the first player ever to win four straight Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week awards. He’s on the cusp of entering the Heisman race. And he’s the focal point of the Trojans’ defensive game plan. Tate has matured in multiple ways. How will he handle the USC challenge this time? Better. A lot better.

2. DOUBTING DARNOLD?

Tate has a better chance to win the Heisman Trophy than Sam Darnold … which would have been a crazy sentence to write two months ago. But it’s true: The USC quarterback basically has played his way out of the Heisman race. He has thrown 10 interceptions and lost seven fumbles, a combination of carelessness and trying to do too much. But to assume, based on recent results, that Arizona has a sizable advantage at quarterback – or any advantage – would be naïve. First off, Darnold has done a better job lately of taking care of the ball. He threw nine interceptions in USC’s first six games, just one in the past three. (Breaking it down even further: Darnold threw six picks in the first three games, three in the next three and then just one in the past three.) Second, Darnold destroyed an admittedly different Arizona defense last season, passing for five touchdowns (with no picks) and rushing for 54 yards. Third, despite those negative numbers, Darnold is still really good. The UA defense is a lot better, but cracks have been revealed over the course of the four-game win streak.

3. ONE-ON-ONES

Given the attention the Trojans are bound to pay to Tate – and the Wildcats to Darnold and tailback Ronald Jones II – this game could be decided by the inevitable downfield battles those defensive strategies will dictate. UA opponents have made it clear over the past four weeks: They’re willing to leave Wildcats receivers in one-on-one coverage in the interest of slowing Tate and the run game. For the most part, Arizona’s wideouts and tight ends have won those contests. Will that continue against a more athletic USC back seven? The Trojans will be without veteran cornerback Iman Marshall but have plenty of talent and experience on the back end. On the other side of the ball, USC has been searching for consistent receiving options to emerge beyond go-to guy Deontay Burnett. In recent weeks, it has started to happen. Over the past five games, redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns has 29 receptions for 408 yards and three touchdowns. Like USC, Arizona has been more than willing to put its cornerbacks in one-on-one situations. Marcel Yates trusts them. Can they hold up in this matchup, especially if Jones is having his way on the ground?

FINAL SCORE: USC 48, Arizona 42

PREVIEW LINKS: