Ask the expert: USC

For this week's Ask the Expert feature we caught up with Publisher Ryan Abraham for his take on the USC Trojans.

SunDevilSource: What's the mood around the program right now after the Stanford loss and especially in light of some of the Steve Sarkisian stuff that has transpired and in a broader context, how is this game seen considering a loss would put the Trojans at 0-2 in the Pac-12?

Ryan Abraham: The USC fans are extremely upset following the loss to Stanford. We have received record numbers of email and voicemail questions for our podcast and they are still rolling in despite the next game being just a few days away. The Cardinal struggled on offense through two games and then looked like an unstoppable force against the Trojan defense which has again put more pressure on USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. For the most part people around the program had moved on from the Steve Sarkisian off the field issues, but if USC struggles in Tempe and ends up 0-2 in conference play after being picked by the media to win it all, I would expect talk about his prior transgressions to emerge once more.

SunDevilSource: How is this game perceived by USC players/coaches/fans in light of last season's ASU-USC game in which the Sun Devils won on a remarkable Hail Mary and ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici throwing for a record five touchdowns and 510 yards against the Trojans, especially considering it's tended to be such an important game in the Pac-12 South race?

Abraham: Talk about the Bercovici Hail Mary has essentially not stopped since the end of that game. I cannot remember a single play that has been referenced more than that one has over the past 11 months. USC players and coaches have not talked about revenge, but certainly how that game ended has to be on their collective minds heading into this weekend. The Trojan defense has struggled with ASU's offense in recent years and coupled with the fact that the Trojan defense only managed two stops against Stanford last weekend, the pressure is on for a more sound defensive performance. And with USC already having one loss in conference, the team is hanging its hat on the fact it was a Pac-12 North loss and can still control its own destiny in the South. Of course if USC loses Saturday night the Trojans would no longer control their own destiny and Steve Sarkisian will have his hands full trying to keep this team together.

SunDevilSource: What were the main takeaways from USC's 41-31 loss to Stanford, in which the Cardinal had a very productive day offensively after earlier struggling mightily to put points on the board against Northwestern? It seems like USC has tended to be quite conservative on defense.

Abraham: I agree, my take is USC needed to be much more aggressive on defense. We saw Northwestern play an extremely aggressive defensive game and kept Kevin Hogan uncomfortable. The Trojans played a much more vanilla defense and not the aggressive, attacking style Steve Sarkisian said USC would be playing this season. USC played Stanford's game instead of their own game and lost, simple as that.

SunDevilSource: USC's offense seems incredibly potent and efficient this season, with great protection and run blocking up front. Is the offensive line a strength of the team that is enabling this and just how potent is this Trojans offense?

Abraham: This is an extremely potent USC offense but I am not sure if we know what the strength is or what the identity of this offense is. We saw against Stanford the Trojans ran the ball down the Cardinal's throat on the very first drive, and then pretty much moved the ball through the air for the rest of the game. Cody Kessler has been extremely efficient and so far has 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions. The biggest issue I see with this USC offense is how it performs when the pressure is on, either on 3rd down situations or when the team is behind on the scoreboard. As a front-running offense this group looks nearly unstoppable, but we have not seen them perform well when everything isn't going their way.

SunDevilSource: It seems as though the Trojans don't blitz much and don't have pass rushers but are very athletic at linebacker in the secondary, albeit perhaps young at spots. Who are the real standouts of the defense and at which positions are the Trojans a little more uncertain?

Abraham: Steve Sarkisian said USC actually called for pressure on 43 percent of the plays against Stanford, meaning they rushed at least five players on those "pressure" plays. By our count USC blitzed 33 percent of the time on Kevin Hogan dropbacks, but the number isn't really the issue. USC only blitzed with more than that fifth pass rusher on one Stanford pass play and typically blitzed from the obvious linebacker spot. We did not see any exotic or all-out blitzes like what Arizona State loves to do. With the vanilla defensive calls, it has been up to individual defenders to make plays on their own. No one on the USC defense has done a better job at making big plays than outside linebacker Su'a Cravens. Outside of him, there has been a play here or play there, but no one really has consistently made plays like Cravens has.

SunDevilSource: What type of game are you expecting and what's your prediction?

Abraham: I thought I had a great feel of the Stanford Cardinal heading into last weekend and they looked completely different than they did the first two weeks. My gut feeling is after watching Arizona State play three games and not looking all that impressive, the Sun Devils will find a way to get up for their conference opener and raise their level of play against USC. I also think the Trojans will play a better, cleaner game as they are 8-0 following a loss since the start of the 2013 season. With both teams playing well I am going to give the edge to the Trojans and the playmakers they have on offense. I hate making predictions but I'll take USC in a shootout, 38-35.

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