Know Your Foe: USC

A 3-1 record is obviously far from horrible, but it doesn't convey the disappointment some feel about the 2013 USC program. To talk about the state of the Trojans and their upcoming game versus Arizona State, Devils Digest invited SCPlaybook.com's Kristen Rogers who answered Sparky's Huddle members' questions regarding the Sun Devils' next opponent.

USC's 3-1 record is obviously not horrible, but perhaps not what the Trojan program and its fans were expecting at this point. What has been the overall mood of those involved with the program given the early season struggles, and what do you think are some of the main reasons for those struggles?

Rogers: It's been a rollercoaster of emotions for the Trojans and the Trojan faithful to say the least, especially during their three-game home stand. The loss to Washington State hit the Trojans hard, causing the flight of the boo birds and the infamous "Fire Kiffin" chant. After the loss, the team said they were eager to bounce back and regain the fans' support. The win against Boston College did bring cheers, but they were quickly overshadowed by yawns that came during the win over Utah State.

For those involved in the program—specifically the offense—they've hit a rut. The Trojans' defense continues to be a lights out for the program, but the offensive side of the ball continues to say they have things they need to work on. Passing needs to improve and the offense needs to open up more if they want to get the Trojan faithful on their feet again.

Lane Kiffin has seemingly always been a lightning rod of controversy. How do the majority of USC fans truly feel about him? Would it be fair to say that as long as USC is still under NCCA sanctions that it would be hard for the Trojans to lure over a high caliber coach to replace Kiffin?

Rogers: As previously mentioned, the "Fire Kiffin," chant sort of says it all. While the fans have taken a bit of a softer approach with their new "KIff don't kill my vibe shirts," they continue blame majority of USC problems on their head coach. Time and again Kiffin has said how hard it is to work with "those numbers" of players on the field, having to sacrifice a few redshirts just to add depth to the roster. While I wouldn't say it's impossible to lure over a high caliber coach if the Trojans were to replace Kiffin, I would say they need to find someone who is willing and able to format his schemes around a few shallow positions.

Why do think there was so much quarterback uncertainty in the beginning of the season, and do you truly feel that this issue has been put to bed with Cody Kessler starting or is there a chance that we could see another change down the road?

Rogers: After watching all of summer practice and fall camp, there was no doubt in my mind that Cody Kessler wouldn't be the starting quarterback. Fans even seemed to be on the same page as well wanting him to lead the Trojans.

During Pac-12 Media Day Kiffin kept saying he would rather take his time and find "the right guy" than picking a QB earlier and having them develop as they go. After the departure of Matt Barkley, there was the first hole at quarterback in a long time for the Trojans. I think Kiffin felt more pressure to pick the perfect guy to replace Barkley, but it seemed from day one that even Kiffin knew it was going to be Kessler.

Yes, he was infatuated with Max Wittek's arm strength and ability to throw those long balls, but Kessler's consistency is what the Trojans need most now. Wittek has taken over for Kessler at the end of games like against Boston College, but I doubt Kiffin would make that big of a change mid-season.

A lot has been said of what is wrong with the USC offense, but what do you think are some of its strengths right now and what challenges can it pose for ASU?

Rogers: USC's passing has been its biggest issue all season. Even Kessler will say that he needs to work on a few things, and Marqise Lee says he still need to develop chemistry with Kessler. I chalk that up to inexperience between the two players and over time the Trojans should complete more passes—especially long balls like the first play to Lee against Boston College—soon.

The biggest challenge for ASU will definitely be the running game. Even with veteran backs like Silas Redd and D.J. Morgan still limited, the young guns Tre Madden and Justin Davis have literally been carrying the games for the Trojans. Before Utah State, Madden rushed for over 100 yards in his first three games and only missed it in the fourth by 7 yards. The Sun Devils will definitely have to look out for No. 22 and No. 23 on Saturday.

Many think that if you stop Marquise Lee, you stop the entire Trojan offense. Do you agree with that statement? What kind of defenses have you've seen geared at slowing him down: jamming him at the line, playing man or zone against him, etc.?

Rogers: If this were last year, I would agree with you. But this year, the Trojans haven't opened up their offense that much to allow for big plays or big yardage from Lee this year. Instead, the Trojans have gotten a lot of mileage out of players like Madden and Davis.

USC is also incorporating their tight ends more into their offensive schemes. During fall camp, Kiffin admitted he believes both Randall Telfer (even though he is limited due to injury now) and Xavier Grimble are both "NFL ready tight ends." In terms of what defense has been slowing him down, usually a Cover-2 with the corners right on top of him have been creating a challenge for Lee.

On the other side of the ball the Trojan defense has been playing very well. What are the main differences between the previous Monte Kiffin style and that of Clancy Pendergast? Anything that is particularly stronger or weaker between the two?

Rogers: First off the format. The Trojans are running a 5-2 instead of a 4-3 this year, and not only was the defensive scheme picked up quickly, it also was implemented very effectively.

The Trojan D is still No. 4 in the nation and No. 2 against the run. Some Kiffin said he liked about Coach Pendergast was that he was able to have the same immediate impact over at Cal. This is what was expected from him. In terms of style, if you talk to any player on the team—offense or defense—the first thing they'll say about Pendergast is that "he knows football." The players clearly respect his knowledge of the game and continue to credit him for their success this season.

Stanford's front seven is one of the strongest in the country and it gave ASU major fits last week. Some feel that USC's front seven is just as good. Do you agree with that assessment and if so do you feel that the USC defense has a significant advantage over the ASU offense?

Rogers: I would say it comes pretty close. With guys like George Uko, Leonard Williams and Morgan Breslin on the front seven, the ASU offense might have a tough time with the Trojan D. Breslin and Uko make up the No. 1 and No. 2 top sacks in the Pac-12 and No. 7 and No. 11 in the NCAA respectively. And then Leonard Williams averages 1.5 tackles for a loss.

Definitely hard to ignore stats like those. But not only do these guys put it on paper, they prove it in the games. After almost every single game, they have been described as being "lights out." Definitely the biggest challenge for the Sun Devils.

As one of the best players to come out of the state of Arizona, Devon Kennard is one player some ASU fans follow. How would you sum his USC career thus far especially with all the position moves he had to endure?

Rogers: I think Kiffin said it best: "I can't imagine someone playing better than he is. His film right now is really elite level film." Devon Kennard continues to excel no matter what position he is thrown at. One of the best qualities about him is that he constantly does it with a smile on his face and a motivational message in his heart. Kennard is not only a captain, but other players say he is a constant source of motivation and has continued to provide them with great leadership. With that kind of level head and dedication to the team, it's no wonder he continues to be a rock for the Trojan defense and already have 15 tackles, 5 for a loss and 3 sacks to his name.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that ASU presents for USC on both sides of the ball?

Rogers: The Trojans have already had a tough time of things offensively, so putting a player like Will Sutton on the other side of the ball will definitely put pressure on the Trojans. Plus the receivers will have to compete against Osahon Irabor.

Following the Utah State game, Madden said he had to constantly compete with the secondary, so with Irabor back there, the Trojans will have to contest once again. As for the offense, I think the rally against Stanford, paired with the Taylor Kelley Jalen Strong combo will give the Trojan defense their first taste of a high caliber offense this season. Plus being ranked eighth nationally in passing offense puts a bit of extra pressure on USC.

What are your keys to the game?

Rogers: It's fairly simple. The Trojans need to tune out the stadium (they've been practicing with artificial noise all week), continue to bring their lights out defense and the offense needs to open it up more and continue to improve their passing game. Definitely a tough match up for the Trojans.


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