Though he is only a true sophomore, quarterback Matt Barkley is a second-year full-time starter and has improved since his eagerly anticipated arrival to USC, now standing as one of the top passers in the Pac-10 Conference.
In eight starts under center for the Trojans, Barkley has been a dynamic and accurate leader, completing 63.1% of his passes for 2,133 yards with 21 touchdowns to only six interceptions. In general, Barkley has looked very poised and controlled, while developing a very synchronized rapport with his receivers.
On the ground, USC has continued to utilize its talented platoon force, led by senior Allen Bradford (76 carries, 569 yards and four touchdowns) and junior Marc Tyler (92 carries, 507 yards and eight touchdowns). Both runners are tough and assertive, and while neither has Reggie Bush-style breakaway speed, they each intelligently attack holes and are fully qualified to gain tough yardage.
True freshman Dillon Baxter has been in-and-out of the dog house in 2010 but still ranks third on the team's rushing chart with 183 yards on 37 carries, while veteran C.J. Gable has carried 34 times for 159 yards thus far as a senior.
Few fullbacks in the country are as versatile and consistent as senior Stanley Havili, USC's third-leading receiver with 23 catches for 283 yards with one touchdown and 16 carries for 129 yards with one score.
For the first time in his career, Johnson entered this season as the primary go-to receiver and has yet to disappoint, having hauled in 43 passes for 529 yards and eight touchdowns. Woods, a five-star prospect a year ago, has brought back memories of instant impact receivers such as Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett and has exploded in recent weeks. In all, the Southern California native has caught 39 passes for 574 yards with six scores, allowing him to form a threatening duo with Johnson.
Behind Johnson and Woods at wide receiver, senior David Ausberry has totaled 14 receptions for 208 yards with three touchdowns, while Brandon Carswell has caught 11 passes for 179 yards with one score.
Sophomore Brice Butler, expected to be an impact player this year, has added only six receptions for 63 yards and one score. True freshman Markeith Ambles has chipped in one catch in four games on the year.
At tight end, Jordan Cameron and Rhett Ellison have formed a respectable combination, equaling cumulative totals of 21 receptions for 225 yards and two touchdowns on the year. Blake Ayles, a former blue-chip recruit, has largely been a disappointment during his years at USC, adding merely one catch so far this season.
From left-to-right, USC figures to start sophomore Matt Kalil at tackle and senior Butch Lewis at guard, with star senior Kristofer O'Dowd in the middle at center, while sophomore guard Khaled Holmes and junior tackle Tyron Smith form the pair on the right side.
Though USC's offense doesn't closely resemble the virtually unstoppable Trojan attack from five years ago, with Barkley maturing and a handful of capable, versatile targets at his disposal, the Men of Troy have all the tools needed to assert their collective will on offense.
Barkley doesn't make a great deal of mistakes, USC's offensive line has allowed only nine sacks in eight games and the skill players combine all-world caliber youngsters with probable NFL-level upperclassmen.
When the Trojans have the ball, ASU's front seven will have to tackle running backs effectively and the Sun Devil secondary will have to be technically sound to prevent Johnson, Woods and others to turn the game into a track race.
The effectiveness of ASU's defense will largely be impacted by how the Sun Devil offense competes; if the Devils stutter and often give USC short fields to work with, ASU's defense will be hard-pressed to do what it must to facilitate a Sun Devil win.
For ASU to achieve a great deal of overall success on defense, the Devils need to find ways into the backfield and stand its ground to resist the Trojans' offensive march.
Defensively, the Trojans' driving force is its athletic and punishing line, led by tackles Jurrell Casey (40 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and DaJohn Harris (18 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks), a pair of big men with enough wheels to scoot into the backfield and wreak havoc on passers and backs.
Armond Armstead (25 tackles, 4.0 TFL, one sack), a converted defensive tackle, figures to start at left defensive end, while the pair consisting of Wes Horton and pass-rush specialist Nick Perry (14 tackles, 3.0 sacks) collectively occupies the right end spot.
Armstead is also labeled as a reserve defensive tackle behind Harris, while junior Hebron Fangupo (four tackles) is tabbed as a key backup at either defensive tackle position.
Other than the three aforementioned ends, the Trojans have a great lack of experience at both positions, with seldom-used senior Derek Simmons (four tackles, one TFL) and redshirt freshmen James Boyd (zero tackles) and Kevin Greene (two tackles) playing left end and true freshman Christian Thomas (four tackles) at right end.
Perhaps as a statement to the state of flux among the depth at defensive end, each of these four reserves moved to end from a different position, as Simmons began his Trojan career on the offensive line, Boyd at quarterback, Greene at linebacker and Thomas at tight end.
Though the talent level isn't quite on par with the Brian Cushing-Kaluka Maiava-Rey Maualuga-Clay Matthews, Jr. quartet from a few years back, USC's current starters is a force to be reckoned with in its own right.
Senior Michael Morgan (37 tackles, 1.5 TFL) starts on the strong side, with Phoenix native Devon Kennard (team-high 57 tackles, 5.0 TFL, one sack) in the middle and a competition between junior Chris Galippo (17 tackles, 2.0 TFL, one sack) and senior Malcolm Smith (36 tackles, 3.0 TFL) for reps on the weak side.
In reserve duty, junior Ross Cumming (six tackles) backs up Morgan on the strong side, Galippo and freshman Will Andrew (two tackles) in the middle and junior Shane Horton (27 tackles, team-high 6.5 TFL, one sack) on the weak side.
USC's safeties and cornerbacks have suffered disappointments and scrutiny this season, particularly senior Shareece Wright (43 tackles, five pas breakups), who in the preseason looked to have emerged into an elite-level cornerback. True freshman Nickell Robey (27 tackles, two interceptions) joins Wright in the starting lineup and has incurred his share of nicks and bruises as many first-year starting collegians in his position would.
At safety a pair of true sophomores stands as USC's first-stringers with Jawanza Starling (36 tackles, one interception) at strong safety and T.J. McDonald (55 tackles, 3.0 TFL, team-high three interceptions) at free safety, who has capitalized on his first opportunity to start at the college level and has the make-up of a stellar safety. True freshman Demetrius Wright is listed behind Starling and junior Marshall Jones behind McDonald.
As a whole, the Trojan defense might have to be tagged as the "Mild Bunch", because its pedestrian performances and statistical standings are nowhere near as "Wild" as the defense's dominant predecessors.
Rating sixth in the Pac-10 in rushing defense (151.2 ypg.), dead last in pass defense (275.8 ypg.), eight in total defense (427.0 ypg.) and seventh in scoring defense (27.9 ppg.), it's nearly unfathomable to think that the mighty helmet, shield and sword-yielding Trojans atop their white steeds rank among the bottom half of the Pac-10 in every major defensive category.
A combination of inexperience, shallow depth charts and growing pains in acclimation to the Tampa-2 defense, the Trojans have gone from gods to mortals and opponents have exposed a major Achilles Heel in USC's tragic defense.
There is talent throughout most of the defensive starting lineup; however there is no true dominance among the group. A general lack of consistency and know-how has plagued USC this season and has opened doors for opponents on multiple occasions.
With ASU's offense on the field, the Sun Devils have the weaponry to be the "wooden horse" and attack the typically tyrannical Trojans.
The main x-factor, of course, will be the accuracy and consistency of Sun Devil quarterback Steven Threet. If Threet can avoid handing opportunities to the Trojans, he has the skill set to spread the field and ‘Fight On' to yardage and points for the Devils.
The ASU offense versus USC defense matchup clearly favors the Sun Devils and the wild card in this exchange (and likely in the game as a whole) will be the turnover battle, which ASU has to win to be victorious.
Special Teams Preview
Kicker Joe Houston has been average at best in his duties this season, converting only five-of-nine attempts, including misses on all four tries over 39 yards.
Punter Jacob Harfman, who also handles kickoffs, has averaged 42.2 yards on 21 punts, with a long of 52 and six downed inside the 20-yard line.
Though USC's kicking game is far from sensational, its returns units boast tremendous star power, with its two standout receivers leading the path for the Trojans.
Ronald Johnson has enjoyed a spectacular year on punt returns, averaging a remarkable 20.2 yards on his 13 runs with an 89-yard touchdown dash in the opener at Hawaii, while Robert Woods carries a 25.4-yard average on 29 kickoff returns with a 97-yard touchdown to his credit.
Woods also has registered one punt return in place of Johnson, while senior running back and veteran specialist C.J. Gable has two kickoff returns for a total of 56 yards this year.
If California was a Jekyll-and-Hyde team in terms of game-by-game inconsistencies (though against ASU they were certainly the Jekyll…or the Hyde…which ever is worse for ASU), USC has a Harvey Dent-style, ‘Two Face' situation of its own with a prominent offense and putrid defense.
With this roller coaster on the tracks for the Trojans, one might assume that ASU gains a bit of control, as it's reasonable to think that if the Devils control and move the ball efficiently, a victory could be found.
Sadly for us all as Sun Devil fans, predictability and dependability haven't been true trademarks of this year's efforts by ASU, so there's little way of empirically predicting what to expect of the Devils in Los Angeles.
For those hopeless optimists, ASU certainly is "due" for a victory against USC, as the Trojans hold a longer winning streak over the Devils than against any other Pac-10 foe. Not since exactly 11 years ago to the day from Saturday has ASU beaten the Trojans, when J.R. Redmond's 148 rushing yards and three touchdowns and Todd Heap's 100 receiving yards thrown from Ryan Kealy enabled the Devils to take a 26-16 win home from The Coliseum.
If there has been a Trojan team since the pre-Carroll era that is beatable, this year's would be it. ASU's chances likely will boil down to how composed and confidently the Devils can play when surrounding by the glitz and glamour, aura and mystique and all the other Papadakis-isms that we have heard nearly as many times as USC's broken-record fight song over the past decade.
Roster News and Injury Notes
Five Questions: ASU at USC
• Can ASU finally break its losing streak against USC?
• Will ASU be able to build upon its shutout victory over WSU?
• What is USC's mindset like after losing to Oregon?
• How will ASU's offensive line hold up against USC's talented defensive front?
• Can the Sun Devils prevent Matt Barkley, Ronald Johnson and Robert Woods from attacking the ASU secondary through the air?
• ASU assistant coach Greg Burns previously coached at USC from 2002-05.
• USC linebacker Devon Kennard is an Arizona native and was a high school teammate of ASU tight end Steven Figueroa at Phoenix Desert Vista High School.
• USC offensive lineman Kristofer O'Dowd is an Arizona native and attended Tucson Salpointe High School.
• USC defensive lineman DaJohn Harris and wide receiver Robert Woods and ASU cornerback Devan Spann all attended Gardena (Calif.) Serra High School.
• USC defensive end Wes Horton and ASU offensive lineman Tyler Sulka both attended Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame High School.
• USC running back Marc Tyler and ASU tight end Christopher Coyle both attended Westlake (Calif.) Oaks Christian High School.