After four-year starter Matt Barkley graduated, the Trojans faced the task of ushering in a new starting quarterback for the 2013 season. Though Max Wittek started the final two games of the 2012 season, he did not hold a substantial lead in the offseason quarterback competition and when the start of 2013 came around he split duties with Cody Kessler.
In his first game as starter, Kessler had an efficient day by completing 15-of-17 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-7 victory over Boston College. Last week against Utah State, Kessler's numbers were not nearly as impressive as he completed 13-of-26 passes for 164 yards and a score.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound redshirt sophomore and No. 12 rated quarterback in the 2011 recruiting class, in total Kessler has completed 61.3% of his passes for 534 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. In all, despite having the nation's premier wide receiver and a multitude of other talented pass-catchers on the roster, USC's pass offense has been a major disappointment as the Trojans rank 108th of 123 FBS teams by averaging only 163.5 passing yards per game.
Thankfully for the Trojans' sake, though the pass game has been greatly anemic, a powerful presence in the run game has emerged in sophomore Tre Madden. The 220-pounder came to USC as a linebacker and played the position as a true freshman in 2011 before missing all of last season due to an injury after switching to running back. Fully healed and needed to fill in for the injured Silas Redd, Madden has totaled 455 yards through the first four games with two touchdowns while also ranking second on the team with nine receptions for 69 yards and another score.
Behind Madden, highly-touted true freshman Justin Davis has rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns with nearly a six-yard average on his carries.
Javorious Allen and Ty Issac have also seen scattered action at running back.
Marqise Lee entered 2013 with as lofty of expectations as any offensive player in the country after a borderline legendary first two years with the Trojans that included earning the Biletnikoff Award and Unanimous First-Team All-America honors in 2012.
In just two seasons, Lee hauled in 191 passes for 2,864 yards with 25 touchdowns and was expected to ease the Trojans' transition at quarterback after the graduation of four-year starter Matt Barkley.
Though Lee's numbers are certainly solid by any other standard, his 23 catches for 293 yards and only one touchdown are far below the standard of his first two seasons. In addition to a shaky transition at quarterback, Lee has been banged up since the weeks leading up to the season opener.
Expected to fill the shoes of departed All-American Robert Woods, Nelson Agholor has tremendous big-play talent but his opportunities have been scarce this season as he has only caught eight passes for 128 yards with one touchdown. Despite his limited touches, Agholor averages a team-high 16.0 yards per reception.
Aside from Lee and Agholor, productivity at receiver has been next to nothing as De'Von Flournoy (two catches) and Darreus Rogers (one catch) are the only other players at the position to have entered the stat books so far in 2013.
The Trojans boast one of the nation's better tight end pairings but, again, productivity has been limited between Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, as the duo has combined for 10 receptions for 105 yards and one touchdown despite each of the two seeing action in every game thus far.
USC's offensive line consists of one-time ASU verbal commit Chad Wheeler at LT, Max Tuerk at LG, Marcus Martin at C, with Aundrey Walker or John Martinez at RG and Kevin Graf at RT. Though the group has helped allow Madden's surprising start, the unit ranks in the bottom third on a national scale in terms of sacks allowed.
Offense in a Nutshell
As has been the case the first four games of 2013, USC will heavily lean on Madden in the run game and look for every opportunity to give Lee chances in space in the pass game.
The Trojan offensive line has collectively performed at a subpar level in 2013, presenting a welcoming opportunity for the Sun Devil defense to finally show the nationally dominant attacking nature it showed in 2012.
USC has not shown much in the way of big-play offense in 2013—last week, USC posted only two plays of 20 or more yards—creating a potentially substantial advantage for ASU if the Sun Devils are able to tackle soundly at the first level and now allow Madden to frequently break through the line and/or allow Lee easy receptions in space.
The Trojans likely will chip away as much as possible with Madden—especially due to the likely absence of Sun Devil DL Jaxon Hood—and eventually buy options for Kessler downfield. If ASU can limit Madden early, USC's offensive options will decrease substantially.
The newfound heart and soul of the Trojan squad is its attacking defense under first year coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who uses his NFL and college coaching experience to implement a dynamic 52 defense at USC.
Williams, the 2012 Pac-12 Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year, is a force to be reckoned with and has played multiple line positions in his brief college career. He has followed his outstanding rookie season with excellent play through four games, leading the team with 6.0 TFL's while standing second on the squad with 19 total tackles as well as two sacks.
Uko ties for the team lead with 4.0 sacks among his 12 total tackles, while Woods has chipped in five tackles.
After coming to USC from the junior college ranks last season, Breslin starred at defensive end and totaled 62 tackles, including team-highs of 19.5 TFL's and 13.0 sacks. This offseason, Breslin was backed up to outside linebacker and has responded admirably with a tie of the team high with 4.0 sacks among his nine total tackles. Kennard is showing the skills that made him a five-star prospect out of Phoenix's Desert Vista High as he's collected 15 tackles, including 5.0 for loss with 3.0 sacks.
The second unit at MLB and WLB includes a pair of true freshmen with Michael Hutchings behind Pullard and Quinton Powell behind Dawson.
Shaw leads the group with 16 tackles and one interception, while Harris has 11 tackles and a pick as well. Seymour has totaled six tackles, while Brown has only played in one game and picked up two tackles.
After spending the early portion of his college career at linebacker, Dion Bailey, the 2011 Pac-12 Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year, has relocated to safety with tremendous early returns. In four games in the backfield, Bailey has totaled a team-high 24 tackles as well as a team-best two interceptions.
Demetrius Wright is listed as a possible starter at free safety and plays a great deal as he currently stands third on the team with 19 total tackles. Shaw is also an option at safety when not in the lineup at cornerback.
True freshman Su'a Cravens, USC's top recruit of the 2013 class as the nation's fourth-best overall recruit and the country's top safety prospect, has impressed early as a starter with 18 tackles and an interception.
Gerald Bowman, a name Sun Devil fans should remember from his recruitment out of Los Angeles Pierce College, backs up Cravens at strong safety. Bowman has been an incredible disappointment as the former five-star prospect has appeared in two games this year with no statistics after totaling only 11 tackles in 13 games last season for USC.
Defense in a Nutshell
Statistically, USC is among the nation's very best defenses thus far in 2013 as the Trojans rank second nationally in TFL's, third in rush defense, fourth in sacks and total defense and 11th in scoring defense.
USC undoubtedly will pressure the Sun Devil line early and often, just as it did in last year's Trojan win over ASU and just as Stanford did last week versus the Sun Devils.
The Sun Devils certainly should expect an onslaught from the Trojan defense, and to contend against that barrage ASU should look to reliable receivers such as Chris Coyle and Jaelen Strong to provide sure-handed options to help force the USC defense to account for more than just frequent backfield pressure.
Special Teams Preview
An Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 member in 2012, PK Andre Heidari has struggled thus far in 2013, connecting on only 4-of-7 field goal attempts. Three of his four made field goals have come from between 20-25 yards, while Heidari is only 1-4 from 32 yards and out.
Punter Kris Albarado averages 40.3 yards on 23 punts with over half (12) landing inside the 20-yard line. Albarado was named the Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week last week for his efforts against Utah State.
Typically dynamically devastating in every role, Marqise Lee has been very quiet on special teams this season, averaging 22.7 yards on three kickoff returns and just 3.8 yards on six punt returns. Fellow receiver Nelson Agholor also is featured on kick and punt returns for USC.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
Hold Tough Up Front
A redundant theme the discuss after ASU's two previous games against physical defenses, after the Devils' major struggles along the offensive line against Stanford it will come as no surprise for USC to try to send a great deal of pressure from its defensive front.
Up front, the Trojan defense features multiple star caliber players and numerous ways to attack opposing backfields, paced by Morgan Breslin, Devon Kennard and George Uko, a trio that has combined for 11 of USC's 16 sacks on the year.
To be successful in this game and also to encourage greater faith in the unit for the remainder of the season, ASU crucially desires a much improved blocking effort compared to what has been seen though the majority of the early part of the season—and most specifically what was seen last week versus Stanford.
Clean Up Mistakes
The past two games—despite one resulting in a win—ASU has been marred by mistakes in several areas, specifically on special teams and with inconsistency at wide receiver other than Jaelen Strong.
The punt team has been downright abysmal as botched punts in each of the past two games have created easy scoring opportunities for the opponents, while shaky hands by wide receivers have noticeably limited the Sun Devil offense.
Though virtually all attention to ASU's 2013 schedule focuses on the four-game early season stretch, the Pac-12 slate features numerous highly qualified opponents. With such a competition level likely to face ASU on nearly a weekly basis, self-inflicted wounds figure to a tremendously costly undertaking to continue.
No All-Madden Performances
Among an offense that has been brutally disappointing thus far, RB Tre Madden has been a major surprise for USC. His skill set and running style could complicate matters for the Sun Devil defense, especially with the highly doubtful nature surrounding DL Jaxon Hood's availability for Saturday.
If ASU is unable to contain Madden—especially early—holes likely will open for WR Marqise Lee to work his magic. Though the Trojans have shown little big play capabilities in the pass game this year, Lee needs very little room to explode as many in the college football world have seen the past two seasons.
In Hood's expected absence, Gannon Conway slides inside with Davon Coleman expected to start beside him. Marcus Hardison, Mo Latu and possibly Sean O'Grady should see increased snaps with the second team. Additionally, redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso is poised to make his first career collegiate start and will be called upon in run support to limit Madden's effectiveness.
In all, Saturday would be the perfect opportunity for All-America DL Will Sutton to have his breakout performance of the 2013 by punishing all obstacles in the USC backfield.
Shake it Off Early
The past two games have been about as bipolar as Sun Devil fans have experienced in recent memory, going from the unexpected elation of the finish against Wisconsin to the dejection of a first-half no-show at Stanford.
Moving ahead to USC, ASU will be very well served to try its best to erase the slate and start fresh against the Trojans, a team that ‘on paper' the Devils have several marked advantages.
The key Saturday likely will be a good start for ASU, as USC has yet to allow a first quarter score through four games in 2013. If the Sun Devils can strike an early lead and build quick momentum to exorcise the demons from last Saturday, ASU can kick start a motivating win to get back on track to next focus on Notre Dame.
In many ways, this game is a "must win" for both teams; ASU wishes to remain on a track to battle for a high ranking within the Pac-12 while USC must avoid the metaphorical wheels from falling off with an 0-2 start to league action.
ASU is favored in this game—and rightfully so—but USC's greatest strength should be of a major concern to the Sun Devils as it will attack ASU's most noticeable weakness right now.
In the end, however, as good as USC's defense is, it isn't enough to compensate for a largely ineffective offense. ASU should be able to get into the Trojan backfield and generate momentum and relatively short fields for the Sun Devil offense.
• ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander lettered in football and track for USC.
• USC QB Anthony Neyer and S Gerald Bowman attended Los Angeles (Calif.) Pierce College, as did ASU WRs Joseph Morris and Jaelen Strong
• USC S Dion Bailey attended Lakewood (Calif.) High School, as did ASU CB Rashad Wadood
• USC S John Auran (Phoenix Brophy Prep), OL Cyrus Hobbi (Scottsdale Saguaro), LB Devon Kennard (Phoenix Desert Vista), LS Peter McBride (Scottsdale Chaparral) are all Arizona natives. ASU WR Frederick Gammage and K Alex Garoutte attended Brophy Prep and ASU RB D.J. Foster and OL Kody Koebensky attended Saguaro High