Know Your Foe: USC

Trying to regroup after the UCLA rout in Tempe, Arizona State is back on the road for a challenging contest as they visit USC. The Trojans have been impressive at times this year, but have their own share of problems in 2014. What can the Sun Devils expect on Saturday evening?’s Publisher Ryan Abraham answers Sparky’s Huddle members’ questions on ASU’s next opponent.

With one third of the season gone, is USC’s 3-1 record and no. 16 ranking considered a success or is there some sense of disappointment, and if so why?

Abraham: There is a large sense of disappointment for Trojan fans after losing to Boston College. The Eagles were one-dimensional on offense and still ran all over the USC defense. Not only did Boston College go on to lose to Colorado State but Pittsburg, the other team that beat BC, lost to Akron. So losing that game still has left a bad taste in the collective mouths of USC fans.

Ironically, the more games the Trojans win, the worse that loss will look. After beating Stanford on the road there was boundless optimism and talk of making a run at the playoffs. Now with that dream essentially dashed, the focus is on what should be a much more realistic goal, winning the Pac-12 South.

A victory Saturday would be a huge step for USC, going 3-0 in the conference and beating one of the "Big 3" in the division. A loss could be devastating for this team and would put even more pressure to win on first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian.

Not to conjure bad memories, but what caused USC to be dominated in that Boston College game? Do you feel that true weaknesses were exposed or was the contest just one big aberration?

Abraham: This is a great question because we have not got a lot of answers out of the players or the coaches as to how this loss could have happened. My sense was that offensively, USC saw Pittsburgh have tremendous success running the football on BC and the Trojans wanted to mimic that. But Boston College stacked the box and the Trojans never adjusted. The passing game was there, but Sarkisian, as he admitted after the game, became very stubborn with the run and did not change his strategy until the fourth quarter when it was too late.

Defensively USC held Stanford to 10 points despite nine trips inside the Trojan's 30-yard line. So how could they allow over 450 yards rushing against a quarterback that could barely throw the football? That I have no good answers for. Again you could point to scheme or play calling. USC could have sold out to stop the run, but for whatever reason that didn't happen. There was no contain on the quarterback and he gained nearly 200 yards on the ground himself.

Quarterback Cody Kessler’s performance has been very impressive thus far. How would you characterize him as a signal caller and has his performance overall been a surprise or par for the course?

Abraham: Cody Kessler's career got off to a rocky start after not being named the starter until game three last season and then Lane Kiffin being fired a couple games after that. But as the year went on, Kessler got more comfortable and he has shown tremendous improvement that has carried over into this year. He is completing over 70% of his passes and he has 10 touchdowns and more importantly zero interceptions.

He showed a lot leadership over the offseason and players have responded to him. He doesn't have the strongest arm and he is more athletic than most people think. At times he can be a game manager, and other times a gunslinger. I am not surprised he is performing at a high level, but I did expect him to turn the ball over a little bit. The fact that he hasn't is a big reason this team is 3-1 right now.

It looks like USC has gotten more receivers involved in the offense this year. Other than Nelson Agholor, what receivers are playing well for the Trojans?

Abraham: Lots of different Trojans have caught balls this year, but there hasn't been much consistency from week to week. True freshmen Juju Smith and Ajene Harris started last week and another true freshman Adoree Jackson, despite starting on defense, is getting some time at receiver as well. This team isn't deep at most positions, but they have plenty of bodies at receiver. The issue is how do you establish the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers when the lineup is changing so often?

For example, early on Darreus Rogers was shining as a third down receiver and looked like he was becoming a favorite target of Kessler. Last week against Oregon State he had one target and one catch, a Hail Mary touchdown at the end of the first half. Also Victor Blackwell caught three passes for 54 yards in the opener and he left the team and hasn't been seen for two weeks. Ajene Harris was announced as the starter for the opener, but didn't start and didn't do much until this past Saturday. And the second leading receiver for the Trojans is running back Buck Allen.

Todd Graham said that the USC running backs may be the best group ASU will face all season. Even though the Trojans average a formidable 178 rushing yards per game, they also average just 3.7 yards per carry and scored only six rushing TD's. Is this an area of concern?

Abraham: USC ran the ball well in every game except Boston College. And for the most part it has been thanks to Buck Allen with Justin Davis struggling the first few games. But Davis got it going against the Beavers and it appears USC has a two-headed monster at tailback again. Sark has been focused on the run, even when it isn't working as well, and I expect him to continue that trend on Saturday.

Tre Madden, who has missed the first four games with a turf toe injury, practiced for the first time this week but he was still severely limited and I don't expect him to be available for this one.

USC’s run defense obviously struggled in the Boston College loss, but has been fairly stout in the other contests. How do you feel about this aspect of the defense?

Abraham: Depth on the Trojan defensive front has been a major area of concern this season. There are not a lot of big bodies to rotate in and give guys like Leonard Williams and Antwaun Woods a rest. But with a few guys getting healthy last week, we thought we would see more of a rotation along the defensive front, but Oregon State ran just 56 plays so there was actually less of a need to rotate than usual.

The Trojans are preparing to play 20-30 more plays against ASU than they did against OSU, so they are expanding their rotation on defense this week in practice. They know trying to stop D.J. Foster is no easy task, but they do feel better about their depth and feel they can keep guys fresh in an attempt to slow down Foster.

The Trojans’ pass defense has been very stingy so far allowing just 155 yards a game. Would you say this is more a function of an effective pass rush or just a high caliber secondary?

Abraham: Individually you can look at some of the guys in the USC secondary and say they have struggled getting beat deep or receiving multiple holding or pass interference penalties. But as a unit, the numbers tell a different story. Sean Mannion had only 123 yards through the air and this USC defense is the only unit in the country that hasn't giving up a passing touchdown.

True freshman Adoree Jackson has been a shot in the arm, especially after Josh Shaw was suspended, and he should get the start again this week. Jackson, in my opinion, is the best cover corner on the team and is a big reason why no QB has thrown a touchdown pass on the Trojans this season.

The USC pass rush has been OK, but not great. The team only has six sacks on the season so the pass defense is mostly coming from the play of the secondary.

Similar to ASU, USC has been playing quite a few true freshmen. What type of contributions have they been getting from the youngsters and who has been the biggest surprise in terms of an early contributor?

Adoree Jackson has made the biggest impact. He has played in all three phases, though his offensive production has gone down lately. He is now the main kick returner, a cover corner like we mentioned, but he also has a touchdown catch on offense. USC is also starting two true freshmen on the offensive line and has a third true freshman in the 8-man rotation. Along with JuJu Smith and Ajene Harris at receiver, Sark is relying on a ton of new faces this season and so far they have performed well.

Many outside the program were less than impressed with the hire of Steve Sarkisian. Yet, does the current record and level of play validate to some extent that hire or are most fans still on the fence about the first-year head coach?

Abraham: When Steve Sarkisian was first hired, there was a lot of second guessing by USC fans. Ed Orgeron was a highly popular figure and a tough act for Sark to follow. Plenty of USC fans felt that Sarkisian was Lane Kiffin 2.0, but much of that talk went away after the Trojans beat Stanford. Then a week later the team loses to Boston College and all those critics came back. The main complaint fans have is that like Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian is a head coach who is calling his own plays. It didn't work with Lane and after Boston College many USC fans felt it wasn't working with Sark either.

Normally a first-year head coach has some time to build up his team, but in this case the pressure is on and fans are not giving him any sort of grace period. They know this team won 10 games with three different head coaches last season and if they don't repeat that feat this year, they are going to blame Sark.

At Washington many believed that Sark would get too caught up in the play calling on offense, and lose track of the overall game management, and it would hurt them in big games. How has Sark changed (or not changed) at USC in terms of managing the game as the head coach vs. calling plays as an offensive coordinator?

Abraham: So far most of the criticism has been about the play calling itself, not the game management. Sark has made a few interesting calls, but most of them have worked out well. His decision to attempt a 53-yard field goal against Stanford turned out to be the game winner (especially when David Shaw passed on two shorter field goal attempts in the game). Even last week Sark went for it on fourth and one on his own 35-yard line up 21-10. He said this week it was a gut feeling he had. It ended up working and USC went on to win 35-10.

After ASU’s loss to UCLA, do you view the Sun Devils differently than just two weeks ago?

Abraham: I still look at the Sun Devils as a team that is tremendous on offense, no matter who starts at quarterback, and has major question marks on defense. I thought that the young guys would be a little further along than they appeared against UCLA, and I feel we will know a lot more about them after Saturday.

Did UCLA just get on a roll and nothing could stop their momentum or is there a major tackling problem with this team? USC struggled to break tackles against Oregon State, so much so that Steve Sarkisian addressed it with the media and made it a point of emphasis this week in practice.

If the USC backs and receivers can break tackles in the ASU secondary, I expect another long night for the Sun Devil defense.

What are your keys to the game for both teams and score prediction?

Abraham: For me, the key for USC is going to be running the football and stopping the run. Pretty basic stuff, but I think that is what this game will come down to. If the Sun Devil back-seven can bring down Buck Allen and Justin Davis on first contact, I think ASU has an excellent chance to win this game. Likewise, if those USC backs can turn 6-yard runs into 16-yard runs, the Trojans should win this game.

We know Arizona State can throw the football, but I feel to beat the Trojans it will be the ground attack that puts them over the top.

I think USC will give up their first passing touchdown and lots of points will be scored, but I think the Trojans pull this one out. 41-37.

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