Devils’ Offense Looks to Eliminate Errors

While both Arizona State and USC enter this weekend’s divisional standoff with similar records, the optimism that once filled Sun Devil nation seems to have simmered down a bit following its 62-27 defeat to UCLA while a swell of momentum appears to be gaining strength amongst the Trojan faithful, setting the stage for yet another critical Pac-12 South match-up for both teams on Saturday.

Typically, playing on a Thursday night means an extra couple of days to rest and prepare for the week ahead, but for Arizona State (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12), it just meant more time to stew on last week’s nightmare against division rival UCLA.

Despite leading by as many as 11 points in the first half, ASU suffered arguably its worst defeat under Head Coach Todd Graham, yielding the most points (62) ever allowed at Sun Devil Stadium. The offense’s four turnovers, one going for a touchdown right before halftime, played a significant role in that defeat.

If any team can relate to ASU’s recent woes it may be their opponent this Saturday, #16 USC (3-1, 2-0), who a week after toppling 13th ranked Stanford on the road, was humbled by Boston College 37-31.

But while ASU spent last weekend licking their wounds, the Trojans exorcised some demons by manhandling Oregon State 35-10 at the Coliseum in a game that seemed like a defensive clinic sponsored by the hosts.

USC limited the Beavers to just 181 yards of offense - the fewest by a Trojan opponent since San Jose State mustered a paltry 121 yards in 2009 - and 17 first downs on 56 total plays.

Oregon State senior quarterback Sean Mannion passed for only 123 yards - his lowest output as a starter - and the Beaver running attack was kept in check to the tune of 58 yards.

OSU managed just 35 yards offense in the second half as USC downed the Beavers for the 23rd consecutive time in Los Angeles.

For USC, who improved to 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 2007, it all starts on defense. The Trojans return eight starters from last year’s team on the defensive side of the ball, including their top three players in tackles, tackles for a loss, deflections, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.

Last year USC held its opponents to 300 or fewer yards and 14 or fewer points in seven of their 14 games and appear on course for similar numbers once again this season under Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox, who joined Head Coach Steve Sarkisian in L.A. after the coach left Washington in the offseason.

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A Stout Front Seven

Under Wilcox, the Trojans run a 3-4 defense with 4-3 principles and feature a group of playmakers, highlighted by junior defensive end Leonard Williams.

Williams, a two year starter, was named a 2013 All-American after recording 74 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks last year. Through USC’s first four games this season, he’s tallied 27 tackles, two tackles for a loss, two sacks and one interception.

“You always have to know where he’s at,” said ASU Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell after practice earlier this week. “He’s long and athletic and can run like a receiver playing the defensive line. He’s a guy you’ve got to account for and know where he’s at but then they’ve also got some other great players up front, so it’s a situation where you’ve got your work cut out for you but we’ve just got to go out and do the best of our ability to execute our scheme and make sure we account for everyone.”

At 6-5 and 300 pounds, Williams is regarded as one of the best defensive ends in the nation and is joined by defensive tackle Claude Pelon, who transferred to USC in 2013 after playing two seasons at Mesa Community College.

Together, the two help fortify a defensive line that ranks as one of the stingiest in the Pac-12 as the Trojans are allowing just 17.5 points per game this season.

“They’re just a big, athletic front,” said ASU offensive lineman Jamil Douglas. “They’ve got some great playmakers up front. I think everyone knows about 94 and 90. I just think they’re different than what we’ve faced. They’re a lot quicker, a lot faster; they’re big guys but they move off the ball really well.”

Arizona State will look to test the Trojans with their explosive rushing attack on Saturday. The Sun Devils come into the week averaging 262.8 rushing yards per game, tops in the Pac-12, led by junior running back D.J. Foster who also leads the conference with 135 rushing yards per game.

“They’re big up front on the defensive line,” said Norvell. “They’ve got some guys who are very aggressive playing the run. They play multiple personnel groups and show a variation of different fronts with what they’re doing, but they’re going to be aggressive to the football so that’s something that we’ve got to come off the football and create movement and try to find some run seams up in there.

“They’re long, they’re powerful and quick as well,” added running back Kalen Ballage. “They kind of have all the attributes put together on their defensive line, so I think that’s what’s allowing them from keeping people from giving them problems.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to be a little more disciplined and take some things away.”

Of course, USC’s second line of defense, its linebacker corps, may be even more threatening. The Trojans are led by three year starter Hayes Pullard who has 308 career tackles and registered team-highs in tackles in both 2011 and 2013.

He’s joined by sophomore Su’a Cravens, who earned Freshman All-American honors last season as a safety but has split time between safety and linebacker in 2014.

Wilcox has shown a willingness to play the versatile Cravens close to the line of scrimmage in an effort to take advantage of his playmaking abilities which were on full display last weekend against Oregon State when Cravens recorded six tackles, one tackle for a loss, one sack, and an interception that he returned or a touchdown.

“He’s a tremendous playmaker,” said Norvell. “He actually had an interception in our game last year as a true freshman when we played them. He’s a guy that makes plays all over the field. They’ve brought him down closer to the line of scrimmage just to kind of keep him in that active role. He’s another guy that you’ve got to know where he’s at and go out and be able to execute.

“We just have to minimize the amount of pressure that he can get on the quarterback,” added Douglas. “I think we’ve seen just about every defensive front that we can see. We’ve just got to match our guys up with theirs and limit the amount of plays that they make.”

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Air Tight Secondary

Based on the results of the first month of the college football season, it’s tough to argue that any defensive secondary unit has been as impressive and opportunistic as the Trojans.

Through the team’s first four games, USC is allowing just 155.5 passing yards per contest, which ranks ninth in the nation. USC is also 11th in the country in interceptions with seven (by seven different players) and is the only team yet to allow a passing touchdown.

“They’re a defense that likes to fly around to the football,” said Norvell. “They mix up coverages between man and zone. They’ve got guys who are long and athletic and will try to get their hands on you, so we’ve got to do a great job with our fundamentals and try to get releases, push them vertical on routes, and get in and out of our breaks.

“It’s going to be a great challenge for us. There’s going to be a lot of athletes on the field on both sides of the ball and we’re excited for it.”

Senior safety Gerald Bowman anchors the secondary while providing veteran leadership to an otherwise young group.

Bowman, who was granted a medical redshirt after suffering a shoulder injury last year against the Sun Devils in Tempe, appeared in all 13 games for the Trojans in 2012 and has 26 tackles, one tackle for a loss, and one interception already this season.

“He can play deep and he can also play down near the line of scrimmage,” said Norvell. “They’re not afraid to put him in man-to-man coverage, so you’ve got a guy who can do a variety of things. He’s definitely a contact hitter who’ll put his hat on you. He’s just a good all around player.”

Bowman is joined by sophomore safety Leon McQuay III, who was an early enrollee last year at USC and saw action in all 14 games for the Trojans while also making one career start.

While the Trojans will be without senior cornerback-safety Josh Shaw, who has been suspended for violating team activities and has not played this season, they still boast a talented duo at cornerback featuring redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins and junior Kevon Seymour, who’s registered 14 tackles and a team-high five deflections so far this season.

Helping to spell them has been true freshman Adoree’ Jackson, a three-way player who also lines up at the slot wide receiver position on offense and returns kicks on special teams for the Trojans.

At 5-11 and 185 pounds, Jackson has added four tackles, two tackles for a loss and two deflections as a member of the USC defense and may be the fastest Trojan on the team after posting career bests in the 100 meter (10.68) and 200 meter (21.59) as a senior at Serra High School last spring.

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Bercovici Encore While it’s difficult to take much away from UCLA’s 62-27 thrashing of Arizona State last Thursday night at Sun Devil Stadium, one significant positive was the play of junior Mike Bercovici, who made his first career start at quarterback in place of the injured Taylor Kelly.

Bercovici completed 42 of 68 passes - both of which were Arizona State school records - for 488 yards and three touchdowns.

“He looked poised,” said Douglas. “Of course he had those pre-game jitters but once he got his first hit he was fine. It was just like practice - he was no different. He was out there being a leader and I think he did well.”

Bercovici helped ignite the ASU offense with a pair of touchdown passes to put the Sun Devils ahead 17-6 early in the second quarter. He demonstrated a good command of the team’s offense and an ability to move the ball well against a talented Bruin defense.

However, Bercovici ran into trouble by throwing two interceptions which resulted 14 Bruin points, including a 95 yard interception return for a touchdown by UCLA cornerback Ismael Adams as the Sun Devils looked to position themselves for a field goal just before halftime that would have evened the score at 20.

“Mike went out there and he competed,” said Norvell. “Obviously there were some things that we’d like to clean up. We’d like to eliminate the turnovers. For the most part though, I think he went out and played fast and distributed the football, but we’ve got to get the turnovers cleaned up and I know he’s going to do that.

“He got some great game experience and some situational football. Those are things that are hard to simulate until you’re actually out there on the big stage, but he did some good things and I’m looking forward to seeing him continue to grow as a quarterback this week.”

Despite the lopsided final score, Arizona State out-gained UCLA 626-580 in total offense and set school records for most plays in a game (105) and first downs (38) while holding more than an eight minute advantage in time of possession against the Bruins.

“I liked the variety of guys who stepped up and made plays,” added Norvell. “Jaelen (Strong) did what Jaelen usually does, but Cameron Smith stepped up and had a big night (eight receptions, 95 yards, one touchdown) and made a lot of great catches.

“I think we had four different running backs who impacted the game and that was big. I thought you got to see the tight ends make a couple of nice plays and just to have that growth and see guys step up in big situations - we still left a lot of plays out there - but it gives us a great starting point to continue grow from.”

Kelly had a scheduled MRI on his injured foot earlier this week and while there hasn’t been an official announcement yet from the team, his status for Saturday’s showdown at the Coliseum remains doubtful which means Bercovici, a native of Calabasas, CA, will make his second career start this weekend against the Trojans.

Just like UCLA last week, the Sun Devils can expect the Trojans to try pressuring Bercovici early and often to derail an ASU offense that’s 16th in the nation in scoring (42.0) and second in the Pac-12 in total offense (560.8).

“I don’t think that UCLA (pressured Bercovici). If they did, I think we picked it up pretty well,” said Douglas. “We threw the ball 68 times and he was sacked once so I think we did a pretty good job of picking up whatever they brought.

“But I’m not sure what USC will have planned. I’m pretty sure they’ll choose to attack and rattle him a little bit but it’s our job to keep him protected and make him comfortable in the pocket.”

After rushing for just 138 yards against UCLA last Thursday and failing to score a rushing touchdown for the first time in 12 games, Arizona State will look to ramp up its ground attack against the Trojans to relieve Bercovici of some of the pressure he’ll face.

The Sun Devils rank eighth nationally in yards per rush (6.41) thanks in large part to Foster who is averaging 8.57 yards per carry.

“I just think we got to get D.J. some more shots,” said Douglas. “I don’t think he had as many carries as he usually has against UCLA. The run game is just something that you’ve to keep chipping away at and if it doesn’t work on one play, you’ve just got to keep working on it and sooner or later it’ll break open.

“I think every week you look to get better so that’s what we look forward to this week; getting better as well as getting our run game going. I expect us to be better than last week.”

USC leads the all-time series between the schools 19-11. While the Sun Devils have won two of the last three meetings, the Trojans had won the previous 11 games dating back to 2000.

Arizona State has not won at the Coliseum since 1999 and USC holds a 10-4 advantage in games played in Los Angeles.

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