LOS ANGELES — If Arizona could harness the fire that coach Rich Rodriguez showed leaving his press conference, launching another bitter broadside against the string of late-night games his team has played this season, it would easily become bowl eligible.
As it stands, however, the Wildcats face long odds to pick up a sixth win with a battered spirit and defense that struggles to stop even the plays it knows are coming.
Ronald Jones II caught a touchdown pass and rushed for 177 yards, including a 74-yard scoring run late in Southern California's third straight victory, 38-30 over Arizona on Saturday night.
Nate Phillips, David Richards and Cayleb Jones caught touchdown passes from Anu Solomon for the Wildcats (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12), who have lost three straight and five of seven. The defending Pac-12 South champions were officially eliminated from contention for a repeat.
Solomon passed for 352 yards, and Johnny Jackson joined Phillips and Richards with at least 86 yards receiving apiece. Arizona still couldn't keep up with USC largely because its defense floundered again.
After giving up 1,099 yards and 94 points in the previous two games, the Wildcats yielded 462 yards and all 38 points to USC during the final three quarters.
"We made a few plays and got a little bit of pressure on an experienced quarterback, but we got to maintain it for four quarters," Rodriguez said. "We tackle like it's flag football or something. That wasn't good."
Justin Davis rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns during USC's 472-yard offensive performance. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught a 72-yard touchdown pass among his eight catches for 138 yards just five days after surgery on his broken right hand.
After two weeks of miserable performances and off-the-field uncertainty about Rodriguez's future, Arizona improbably got off to an excellent start on the first chilly autumn night of the season at the Coliseum.
Phillips caught a 9-yard TD pass in the first quarter, and Richards had a 3-yard scoring grab on the opening snap of the second. Arizona's defense held USC to 12 first-quarter yards and even recovered a fumble.
A two-play sequence in the second quarter changed everything. John Plattenburg picked off a poorly thrown pass by Solomon at the Trojans 6 to kill another likely scoring drive, and Kessler then hit Smith-Schuster down the middle for an untouched score on the next snap.
"We were moving the ball early on and then just caught a little funk," Jackson said.
The Trojans mounted a tying 82-yard drive that ended with Jones' 5-yard scoring grab shortly before halftime.
USC erased an early 14-point deficit and took its first lead on Davis' TD run on the opening snap of the fourth quarter. After Casey Skowron's third field goal trimmed USC's lead to 24-23 with 10:05 to play, Jones burst through Arizona's defense for the longest TD run of the freshman's career.
Arizona defensive back Tellas Jones said the sideline called out the play late, but still should have come up with the stop.
Rodriguez was more blunt in his assessment.
"We can't let the guy run 72 yards when we know he is going to run it," he said.
The Wildcats also let versatile sophomore Adoree Jackson come free for a 42-yard catch-and-run to set up USC's first score and yielded several other big plays that should have been identified based on personnel groupings and situational tendencies.
"We do a good job during the week scouting other teams, so we knew what they were going to run for the most part," Jones said.
Jones broke LenDale White's 2003 single-game record for yards rushing by a USC freshman. While Jones and Davis both had big performances on the ground, Smith-Schuster produced a standout game in the same week he got a plate and a screw inserted in his hand.
After Arizona turned the ball over on downs at midfield in the third quarter, Davis' scoring run put the Trojans ahead.
Davis rushed for his second score with 2:36 to play. Cayleb Jones caught a TD pass with 10 seconds left, but Arizona's onside kick went out of bounds.
After reaching the Fiesta Bowl last season, Arizona must now defeat Pac-12 South leader Utah next week or equally downtrodden rival Arizona State simply to make a bottom-tier postseason game. Solomon said the Wildcats are focused on playing well and the elusive win would come from that simple goal.
"We don't want to lose again, and that's all," Solomon said. "We just want to get over this depression, this funk that we're in, but just got to keep working. We got two more games left. Those are two big games and two opportunities to show what we really have."