"Defensively, they have a lot of guys returning from a year ago. The impact from the two freshmen linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard have really made a big difference. Their secondary, T.J. McDonald is a big-time run support guy. They've got all kinds of talent and as a football team they're pretty darn good."
There is no doubt that this week's home game has been circled on the ASU football calendar for quite some time now, but following a close and frustrating 17-14 loss to Illinois, Sun Devil quarterback Brock Osweiler doesn't think that his team's upcoming contest carries more pressure because his squad is sporting a 2-1 record rather than an undefeated mark.
"I'm a firm believer, in looking at [the season] on a week-by-week basis," explained Osweiler, "and I know the rest of the team is as well. Each week our record is 0-0, so we're going into the game against USC with the same mindset had we won the Illinois game. We're just looking forward to the opportunity and we'll be ready to roll.
"The bottom line for all of us now in this league is the league itself. It's like what I told our players on Sunday, you can't sugarcoat getting beat. But in saying that, we have nine football games left. To us, that's what it's all about is trying to win the (PAC-12) South, trying to get into that playoff game and trying to go to the Rose Bowl. It just happens to be USC the first game and they're a really good football team. As far as pressure, they're all pressure. Playing USC is playing USC."
Due to its NCAA sanctions USC cannot participate in the post-season, even if they were to win the Pac-12 South. Therefore, the Sun Devil signal caller truly feels that the Trojans will be playing with a chop on their shoulder.
Nonetheless, the dozens of ASU players who hail from Southern California will want to prove something themselves, namely coming away victorious against a USC team that they have never beaten and a program that hasn't suffered a Sun Devil defeat since 1999.
"For a lot of the guys this is the game that their families, friends and old coaches come into town for," Osweiler commented. "They know a ton of the kids on the USC team, so for the majority of our football team this is a very personal football game. I know I had my experience with USC two years ago and I'm looking to have a little better go at it this time. Any time USC comes up on the schedule you get excited for it. We just have to go out, have a great week of practice and get prepared for them."
The offense surrendered six sacks against the Fighting Illini last week, and Erickson pointed out that the offensive line cannot be blamed for each of those mishaps.
"(There were) a lot of mental mistakes, probably more than anything," Erickson confessed. "They (Illinois) did some different things that we adjusted to a little bit better to in the second half, and then some technique things, and we didn't get rid of the football. In our offense, you've got to get rid of the football. That's just part of it. There were times when the ball should've been out and it wasn't out, and we held it and got sacks.
"If I'm USC, or if I'm whoever we play down the road, I'm going to look at what Illinois did to us and I'm sure as heck going to do it. People are going to blitz us and we know what we have to do. We've talked about that as an offensive football team. We really haven't been blitzed this year. We knew it was coming; I knew it was coming. It was just a matter of when. We just have to pick it up, get the football out, make some big plays because of that, and we'll be fine."
Erickson pointed to his quarterback's inexperience as the main factor that has caused Osweiler to hold onto the ball longer than he should, a trait the ASU head coach can be seen also every week on the NFL level.
"He saw some different things that he hasn't actually seen live," said Erickson of Osweiler. "Next time, he'll react to it. He did some good things, too, don't get me wrong. Part of it is seeing what's happening, seeing the blitzes, things like that. He made some good plays, but you get better the more you play and with the more experience you get—at any position, but particularly that position."
Osweiler stated that he viewed the Illinois game film three times to make sure that he didn't miss any detail that could provide him the necessary feedback in his preparations for the USC game.
"All I can do is look back at the game tape in those pressure situations and say, ‘What could I have done better in this situation, if anything?'" Osweiler remarked. "I have looked over the [Illinois game] three times now and broke it down pretty thoroughly. Hopefully, those mistakes don't happen again and I just have to move on and get better from it."
Osweiler claimed that even though the 2010 campaign was marred with mental mistakes that led to close losses, that last week's defeat isn't a prelude for the rest of the current season.
"I'm not concerned about that at all," Osweiler said. "After looking at the Illinois film three times, there were some goofy things that happened that wouldn't normally happen and we've broken it down as a team and we've looked at those mistakes that we made. I can't go out and guarantee that it will never happen again but I have a strong gut feeling that we're going to take care of those mistakes, clean them up and the next time we go on the road - or this Saturday at home - those mistakes won't happen again."
There are many things members of the Sun Devil nation will disagree on these days, but one topic that the ASU faithful will be in total consensus over is that the crowd atmosphere two weeks ago against Missouri was simply electric and one of the best Sun Devil Stadium has seen in many years.
Following the loss to Illinois, is it doubtful that the crowd this Saturday will near 70,000 as it did against the Tigers. Yet, Erickson and Osweiler certainly hope that the support for the USC contest, spearheaded by the student section, will be as strong as it was in the Blackout game against Missouri.
"If we can have the same impact as our students had against the University of Missouri that gives us an advantage," Erickson said. "That's the best I've ever seen it here. How they got involved, how much noise they made, how much they enjoyed it, that's the advantage of playing at home. When it gets noisy, it bothers you. You can say what you want, but it does. It causes some penalties that you normally wouldn't get if you're playing at home."
"The student section is huge," Osweiler concurred. "The energy that they bring to the game is very exciting for the players and really gets us amped up and excited to play, as does the rest of our home crowd. We're expecting a great environment this Saturday and it's good to be back home."
Granted, the spirits of some Sun Devil fans has been dampened but don't expect the Sun Devil team to sulk in the days leading up to the USC game.
"It's just one loss and it was a loss against a Big Ten opponent," Osweiler said. "It means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of our team's goals and us winning the Pac-12 South and then winning the Pac-12 Championship.
"With those being our two goals as a team, we're excited and we're ready to go for this week and play USC."