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USC must stop Arizona's Tate in key Pac-12 South game

LOS ANGELES -- The No. 17-ranked USC Trojans closed September last season at 1-3, before a quarterback change ignited a nine-game winning streak that closed the campaign.

A similar scenario has played out thus far in 2017 for USC's opponent Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum -- the No. 23 Arizona Wildcats.

Arizona (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) ended September at 2-2, losing a pair of home games to Houston and Utah by a single possession. Following a bye week, the Wildcats traveled to Colorado on Oct. 7, where quarterback Brandon Dawkins was flung into the sidelines on the game's opening drive.

Dawkins was pulled, and sophomore Khalil Tate entered the lineup. It was a move that USC head coach Clay Helton said, "changed the dynamic of their team."

Four games, four wins and an unprecedented four straight Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors later, Tate has not relinquished the job. He leads Arizona in rushing with 926 yards on just 69 carries and has reached the end zone for eight touchdowns.

Tate has more rushes of 50 or more yards than all but five teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. He has also demonstrated an ability to strike for long pass plays as defenses allow, coming off a career-best 275-yard performance in Arizona's upset of then-No. 15 Washington State last week.

"He's taken charge a little bit, even though he's a young guy," Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said of Tate.

If USC (7-2, 5-1) is to remain in control of its course to a conference championship, the Trojans must now do what no opponent has done -- solve the Tate puzzle. His success is reminiscent to USC a season ago, when Sam Darnold was inserted into the starting lineup.

Pac-12 defenses failed to adjust to Darnold's dual-threat ability and NFL-caliber field vision, while USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin adjusted his game plan to fit Darnold's strengths. Likewise, Arizona's offensive approach has undergone some changes that maximize Tate's explosive play-making ability.

"One of the things (Rodriguez) has always done a terrific job of is manipulating his system to the personnel around him," Helton said. "He had two different style of quarterbacks this season ... and you can see a little bit of change of philosophy in helping Khalil do his strengths in these last four games."

Over that four-game stretch, Arizona averaged 48.8 points per game, with the high-water mark, 58 points, coming against a Washington State defense that held USC to 27 on Sept. 29. The change in offensive efficiency also changed Arizona's fortunes in the Pac-12 race. The Wildcats, projected for a second straight last-place finish in the South division, now plays USC for the division lead.

"In this one, there is a big-time atmosphere," Rodriguez said. "It's against a really good football team, one of the most talented teams in the county. There's a lot at stake."

USC, coming off a blowout loss at Notre Dame on Oct. 21, rebounded last week with an emphatic 48-17 rout of Arizona State, which had played its way into the Pac-12 South race with upsets of Washington and Utah.

Running back Ronald Jones II rushed for 216 yards and two touchdowns, while Darnold passed for 266 yards and three scores, also avoiding the turnover issues that have plagued him much of 2017.

With 16 giveaways between interceptions and lost fumbles, the buzz around Darnold has subsided. His outing at Arizona State demonstrated why he still cannot be overlooked, however.

"Sam Darnold is still one of the best players in the country," Rodriguez said. "He's still a first-round draft choice."

The Trojans can still accomplish a feat that eluded the 2016 team: winning the Pac-12.

"It's really important," Jones said of maintaining first place. "Obviously, we control our own destiny ... but we've got to win the next game."

The Arizona matchup has not an easy one for USC recently, despite the Trojans losing just twice in the past 16 years. Every game from 2007 through 2015 came down to a single possession.

Restarting that trend on Saturday would not be any deviation from the norm for either team in the context of this season, either. Arizona has played four games decided by six points or fewer; USC has played three.

Saturday's contest also provides an air of familiarity. Southern California is a vital recruiting pipeline for both programs, as it is for most of the Pac-12. Arizona has 31 players who played high school football in the California Interscholastic Federation's Southern, Los Angeles or San Diego Sections.

Eight of the Trojans played with Tate at Gardena's Serra High School.

"Khalil has a few friends who play defense for them," Rodriguez said. "From that standpoint, the Southern California games are huge for them because they know a lot of those guys."

Indeed, Arizona and USC are teams with familiar faces, similar paths and the same goal at stake when they meet Saturday night.

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