The USC Trojans might be the most talented team in the Pac-12. But talent doesn’t necessarily translate into victories, and the Trojans learned that the hard way against the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday.
Despite boasting a roster brimming with 4-star and 5-star recruits, the Trojans haven’t always performed at a level that matches their potential in recent years, and Saturday’s loss was another prime example.
Defensively, USC couldn’t keep Stanford, a team lacking any semblance of offensive stability heading into the matchup, off the field. The Cardinal piled up 41 points in a 41-31 win, and a once-invincible looking Trojans squad snapped back into reality.
After defeating the Trojans in back-to-back seasons and watching film of USC’s most recent game, the ASU players we talked with this week enjoyed a quiet sense of confidence.
Not only does ASU see some flaws in USC’s approach on each side of the ball, this year’s Sun Devil team features players who have already tasted success against the Trojans over the past two seasons.
In the Pete Carroll days, USC mixed its high-end talent with top-tier coaching that helped propel the Trojans into their status as a national powerhouse. Now, under Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans appear mortal once again, and teams like Stanford and ASU have proved that’s the case in recent years.
So how does ASU plan to overcome USC for the third year in a row? We talked to coaches and players to hear their assessment of the Trojans’ personnel and scheme.
Breaking Down Simplicity
On offense and defense, USC has yet to showcase the type of ingenuity and elite play calling many nationally ranked teams have so far this season. Instead, the Trojans rely on a simplistic approach with the goal of winning one-on-one matchups and allowing their playmakers to outperform their opponents.
USC’s simplistic approach manifests itself most often on the defensive side of the ball, where it plays a significant amount of zone coverage and rarely, if ever, rushes more than five defenders.
ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said he believes USC doesn’t blitz as much as most other Pac-12 teams because its coaching staff has never felt obligated to create pressure with its scheme.
Instead, Sarkisian has always reaped the benefits of elite pass rushers who can disrupt quarterbacks on their own, and that dates back to his time as the Washington Huskies’ head coach.
“They’ve never blitzed an awful lot,” Thomsen said. “Going back to Washington, they had capable rushers that could provide pressure and then USC, my experience going against them they’ve always had very capable rushers, so I don’t think there’s a real need to blitz a lot if you got those kind of guys so whether they change who knows. The last couple weeks we’ve gone against blitz-heavy teams so when you get in that game you have to adjust to what you’re doing regardless.”
Last year, ASU passed for 510 yards against the Trojans, but managed just 31 yards on the ground. In his second career start, redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici had plenty of time to drop back and throw against a USC defense that rarely pressured him, but the Sun Devils failed to establish a rushing attack. Much of the Sun Devils’ issues could be attributed to the play of elite defensive tackle Leonard Williams and the linebacker tandem of J.R. Tavai and Hayes Pullard.
USC has been challenged to replace a trio that could create a pass rush without exotic stunts and slants, and stop run plays simply because of their abilities to win one-on-one matchups.
With USC’s defensive front still searching for an answer, Thomsen said ASU believes its experience scheming against and game planning for Sarkisian-coached teams could become an advantage.
“It should, but it works both ways,” Thomsen said. “They got my three years here, this stuff comes back to Washington with the defensive staff. We’re all familiar with each other. It does help, but they got the same deal working for them. They know us pretty well so again, it just boils down to the capable players doing what they’re supposed to do and going out and making plays.”
One area of the field where the simplicity of asking players to win one-on-one battles often works in the Trojans’ favor is in its secondary, where some of the most dynamic players on USC’s roster reside.
Sophomore cornerback Adoree Jackson could materialize into a top draft pick, while true freshman and five-star cornerback recruit Iman Marshall has already caught the eye of ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander.
Though redshirt senior wide receiver Devin Lucien is nursing an injury, Alexander expects Lucien to play and for ASU’s offense to have its full compliment of play-makers heading into a pivotal game.
“This game is about us coming off the ball and winning our one-on-ones,” Alexander said. “Sometimes that one-on-one is in a man matchup, and sometimes it’s in a zone matchup where that one-on-one is between myself, so it’s just about executing.”
Alexander described Jackson as a rare defender who has the ability to shut down an entire side of the field, and ASU must be wary of his skillset. The Sun Devils have clearly identified Jackson as a threat to disrupting their offensive rhythm, and Alexander has put a premium on making sure his receiving corps can find the tiny windows of open space available in USC’s zones.
“On one side, they’ve got a corner (Jackson) that’s elite when it comes to being dynamic,” Alexander said. “So when you read his press clippings, you read about what he’s capable of and he’s proven that. So on one side, he’s supposed to have that side locked down, the other side you’ve got a nice, physical five-star recruit in Iman Marshall and you’ve also got No. 21 (junior outside linebacker Su'a Cravens) in there so they’ve got some guys. I don’t expect there to be wide open holes or for it to be easy, it’s going to be really competitive.”
After putting up 62 points on USC two years ago and springing for 34 in last year’s contest, ASU knows what it feels like to break down and break through USC’s defense.
Redshirt junior tight end Kody Kohl said the offense spends a lot of time watching film each week to analyze areas of weakness in their upcoming opponent, and Kohl indicated ASU identified one of USC’s shortcomings is its discipline.
“They’re a very talented defense and they have a lot of athletes, but we’ve seen them be undisciplined and we think we can take advantage of that,” Kohl said.
Offensively, USC’s scheme appears to be a bit more evolved and complex than its defense, but that could be a result of better execution so far this season. The Trojans rank in the top 15 nationally in total offense, and redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler has the benefit of playing behind one of the most technically skilled offensive lines in the country.
As a third-year starter, Kessler has a firm grasp of USC’s offense, and his efficiency this season is off the charts. Still, the Sun Devils are of the belief their exotic pressure schemes are unlike anything opponents face on a weekly basis.
Sophomore defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood said ASU’s defensive line is confident it will handle USC’s offensive line because of the Sun Devils believe they possess a superior scheme, and that appears to be a microcosm of how every ASU player and coach is looking at Saturday’s contest.
“They’re (USC) pretty good, but what they do is simple,” Smallwood said. “We’re not too worried about how big they are and how fast they are, so if we do what we need to do, it won’t be a problem.”
Game Planning for the Greats
Even though ASU is confident in its system and plan of attack for Saturday, the Sun Devils still have to contend with a handful of players with the capabilities of single-handedly taking over a game.
Kessler is a threat to wear down ASU’s secondary, especially if the Sun Devils play as much cover one and cover zero as they have shown through their first three games.
ASU’s commitment to blitzing five and six players on nearly every snap means there’s an even greater emphasis on disrupting quarterback and wide receiver timing this week, and it’s not just the pass rushers who have a hand in keeping USC off balance.
“No doubt, you can’t let him (Kessler) just set his feet and throw on time,” defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “So we’ve got to do a good job of disrupting receiver timing, even with vertical releases and stuff like that, and also make him move his feet and throw the ball on the run.”
Kessler is a veteran of the Trojans’ scheme, and when USC has strung together great performances with him at the helm, USC has been able to maximize results from its play-action pass game.
In asking its cornerbacks to check and sometimes bump receivers earlier in their patterns, ASU is hoping its rushers will have more time to get to the quarterback in what is certainly a collective effort to disrupt USC’s chemistry.
Redshirt senior Devil backer Antonio Longino said ASU can also neutralize USC’s play-action game with faster feet at the line of scrimmage, as he notes a quick jump limits the possibility of downfield threats.
“When we get off on the ball they (USC) won’t be able to do that (play-action) so that’s what we plan on doing,” Longino said.
Patterson indicated the Sun Devils will need to use multiple looks on defense this week, because Kessler and the Trojans can thrive when they’re able to anticipate and predict defensive fronts and coverages.
Aside from having vertical threats like sophomore wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster to keep defenses honest, the Trojans also excel at using check downs and underneath routes in the passing game.
Kessler isn’t afraid to settle for throwing swing routes to running backs or finding tight ends leaking, and his ability to make second and third reads is part of what makes him such an efficient quarterback.
“You’ve just got to pick and choose, you’ve got to vary your coverages and techniques and keep them off balance,” Patterson said. “He (Kessler) does a nice job feeling pressure and he probably does as good a job of any quarterback I’ve seen of hitting the check downs and throwing the ball down to his backs.”
On the other side of the ball, USC features one of the most versatile defensive players in the country in Cravens. Cravens is the x-factor for USC’s scheme, and is the one player defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has a propensity to move around and take risks with. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Cravens’ ability to drop into coverage, pressure the quarterback, and chase down ball carriers calls to mind another prominent do-everything Trojan in Troy Polamalu. Longer and more physical than Polamalu, Cravens is more of an up in the box presence, but he’s a sideline-to-sideline player who commands attention from opposing coaching staffs.
“Playmaker, he’s (Cravens) a playmaker, when people run at him and when people run away from him,” Alexander said. “There was a play where they tried (Stanford) to sneak the tight end out the back, he recognized it, chased it down and made a play. He’s a playmaker. We wouldn’t think anything less of him.”
Though he plays from a two-point stance, redshirt junior left tackle Evan Goodman characterized Cravens as a player ASU’s offensive line must locate on every play. Cravens represents a significant test, but Goodman and the rest of the offensive line saw the difference elite players such as Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett can make and they’ve made Cravens a priority.
“He’s a real athletic type of guy, he can play any position on the field, really,” Goodman said. “And when you go against him, you have to trust your technique.”
ASU has reason to heap praise on the Trojans’ star linebacker, as he tormented the Sun Devils for a portion of last year’s contest at the Coliseum. Cravens finished with a team-high 3.5 tackles for loss and looked unblockable early on, but all of his tackles for loss came in the first quarter before ASU got on the scoreboard.
Cravens will draw a number of different assignments on Saturday, and one of those includes defending Kohl as he releases off the line of scrimmage. After Stanford targeted tight ends successfully last week, Kohl is looking forward to an opportunity to put his skillset on display against a defender many perceive as the cream of the crop for the Trojans.
“He’s a very talented player and a great athlete, but I don’t think he’s gone against many great offensive players yet so I’m trying to give him that matchup,” Kohl said. “I don’t want it to be easy, I never want it to be easy, I want to earn everything.”
Facing a defense filled with superior athletes like Cravens and Jackson, ASU is looking to exploit any weakness it might find. Whether it’s carving out methodical drives against a defense based on a more simplistic approach, or game planning around the Trojans’ marquee players, ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell says there’s keys the Sun Devils will be paying attention to throughout the game.
After the Trojans blew past two overmatched opponents in their first two games, ASU watched Stanford unveil the blueprint for beating the Trojans. A sharp strategy, a relentless approach, and keeping the Trojans’ offense off the field by converting on third downs were all takeaways ASU hopes to emulate come Saturday.
“Stanford did a great job, was very efficient,” Norvell said. “I think one of the keys to this game is third down. When you look at Stanford, they were eight of 12 on third down so that’s something that if you’re efficient on third down, you’re going to keep the chains moving.”