LOS ANGELES — The Arizona Wildcats entered Thursday’s game against USC with one major problem. They left Hollywood with an entirely different one.
Through four games, the UA’s biggest issue had been its struggles in the passing game. Thursday, the problem was on the other side of the ball — the Wildcats couldn’t stop the opposing aerial attack.
USC quarterback Cody Kessler completed 15 of 30 for 297 yards, a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions. And every time the Trojans needed a big pass against the Wildcats, Kessler seemed to deliver.
“We gave up some big plays with what looked like busted coverages,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “I don’t know who it was. Was it the secondary? Was it the linebackers? I don’t know. The defensive coaches can tell you. We didn’t play as well certainly as we are capable of defensively.”
Kessler was especially dangerous early on.
The redshirt freshman hit six of his first seven attempts, including touchdown passes of 62 and 63 yards.
He hit receiver Nelson Agholor for the 62-yard score and then one drive later connected with running back Tre Madden for the 63-yard strike. At one point, early in the game, Kessler had a quarterback rating of 390.7.
“They probably threw the ball a little more than we thought early,” Rodriguez said. “All along with Marqise Lee out, I thought (Agholor) was going to be their guy, and he was targeted a whole bunch of times, and they executed pretty well.
“But there were some that were way too easy. From our standpoint, I’ll have to see what happened with the coverage bust or what happened, but guys were just wide open down the middle of the field.
“Things like that shouldn’t happen.”
Kessler was effective early; Agholor was a pest to the UA the entire 60 minutes. Lee went for 345 yards against the UA last year in a Wildcats win but was out with a knee injury Thursday. Agholor had seven catches for 161 yards in his place and gave UA fans flashbacks of Lee.
The receiver had catches of 62, 39, 20, 18 and 12 yards.
Cornerbacks Shaq Richardson and Jonathan McKnight took turns covering Agholor throughout the game, and neither had much success.
But if you ask linebacker Marquis Flowers, even Deion Sanders would have struggled Thursday against Agholor because the UA was getting no pass rush on Kessler.
“(Kessler) had a lot of time, and you can’t really ask a guy to cover a guy like Agholor with that much speed for that long of a time,” Flowers said. “He’s going to get open. I have to be way more effective on my blitzes.”
USC coach Ed Orgeron added: “We started challenging the offensive line two weeks ago to be nasty and physical. That was critical for us in the end.”
Whether it was Agholor’s playmaking abilities, USC’s strong offensive line or just a bad night for the UA defense, it was a far cry from the team’s first four games.
Through the first four games, the UA was giving up just 185.8 yards per game through the air and limiting opponents to a 54 percent completion percentage. Even more impressive, the UA had seven interceptions and allowed only three touchdown passes in the first four games. In fact, the UA had picked off a pass in each of its first four games.
It all seemed to change on Thursday against the Trojans.
“I just think we made mistakes, and they saw the mistakes we made,” Flowers said. “It just takes one person, and the quarterback did a good job of finding some passes, and we made mistakes on the run, and they were able to just drive down the field.”