For the past three weeks, USC redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler has been dismantling college football defenses left and right. This week, Arizona State’s blitz-heavy defense looks to turn the tide and dismantle Kessler and No. 19 USC’s potent offensive attack.
For the Sun Devils to have a favorable shot at quieting the No. 11 scoring offense in the nation (48.3 points per game), they will have to disrupt the line of scrimmage and force Kessler to put the ball in jeopardy and move out of the pocket and make plays with his feet.
For ASU, that’s easier said than done. Led by senior center Max Tuerk, a Rimington Award and All-American candidate, the USC offensive line is one of the best in the Pac-12, if not in the court. That's one of the reasons Kessler is off to one of his best seasons so far, completing 78.7 percent of his passes and throwing 10 touchdowns with no interceptions. Only behind Washington State sophomore quarterback Luke Faulk, Kessler ranks second in the Pac-12 for average passing yards per game with 307.3.
“He does a great job of managing the offense and just distributing the ball, and he can make all the throws, so he's a very good quarterback,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said at his Monday press conference.
From his comfortable pocket behind a huge wall of protection, Kessler has been able to pick apart defenses by not only throwing to one of the best wide receivers in the conference – sophomore Juju Smith-Schuster – but also by being able to hand off the ball to USC’s talented trio of running backs.
Smith ranks No.1 in the conference for average yards per game (144.7) and No. 2 for the most catches per game (8.3).
“You can’t let him (Kessler) just set his feet and throw on time,” ASU 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.”
If the Sun Devils can make Kessler uneasy in the pocket by bringing pressure off the edge from senior Devil backer Antonio Longino and redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson, and through its various blitzes, Kessler will have less time to establish himself and take vertical shots downfield.
But if USC can hold off ASU’s blitzes, it will leave the Sun Devils vulnerable to big play opportunities. With the Sun Devils continuing to bring pressure on almost every down, ASU’s defensive backs will have another challenging game filled with man-to-man coverage.
“You know, we got four senior DBs (defensive backs) and I was just talking to them about, man, savor the moment, create the moment,” Graham said after Thursday’s practice. “You’re never going to pass this way again. You’re never playing in this game ever again. Man, I’d kill to play in it.”
Like his head coach, Longino said he’s looking forward to the matchup ahead and sees it as his potential breakout game after having a subpar start to the season. Against Texas A&M, Longino had zero tackles and then proceeded to record 10 against Cal Poly and five against New Mexico. However, despite his 10-tackle performance against the Mustangs, Longino only had one tackle for loss.
With his inability to get in the backfield, Longino said he’s excited to be done playing against the triple-option offenses and getting back into Pac-12 play and going against a spread offense like USC.
“I just know I have to come in with a completely different mindset,” Longino said. “To dominate, and that’s what I got to do and that’s what I’m planning to do.”
Despite the Trojans’ multi-faceted offense, Longino said preparing for this game was no different than the other games coaches have schemed for in terms of pressuring the quarterback and blitzing on almost every down.
“We just watch the film and do the same thing every week,” Longino said. “You know we’re going to pick it up. There are no specifics. Just be good with the pass rush and stop the run.”
Murphy-Richardson has been less of a key component to ASU’s defensive scheme thus far, but has seen the field on multiple occasions alongside Longino in ASU’s nickel defense. Murphy-Richardson’s said his main goal for the game is the get off the line of scrimmage quicker than he has been and using his speed to impact the quarterback.
“Man, we just have to attack him (Kessler),” Murphy-Richardson said. ”Just attack. We got to make him uncomfortable and make him make bad decisions and just trust our training.”
The Sun Devils know firsthand what can happen when their defense can hold their own and also win the turnover battle. In the Trojans’ 62-41 loss to ASU at Sun Devil Stadium in 2013, Kessler threw for 295 yards on 20 out of 29 attempts, but he also threw two interceptions– one was a pick-six by former ASU safety Alden Darby.
Then in the infamous “Jael Mary” game last season at the Los Angeles Coliseum, USC had a chance to ice the game by picking up a first down late in the fourth quarter, but ASU’s defensive front forced a three-and-out. In ASU’s ensuing drive, quarterback Mike Bercovici’s miraculous Hail Mary heave to Jaelen Strong won the game for the Sun Devils 38-34. Kessler didn’t throw for a single touchdown all game and was 28 for 45 on the night.
Regardless of the results the past two seasons, on Thursday Graham called USC “the most talented team ASU will play all year.” However, while the Sun Devils know they are going against a formidable opponent, players believe in the end, they have the advantage.
“They’re a good team, we’re a great team,” Murphy-Richardson said, “It’s going to be a hard battle.”
Despite all the offensive weapons for USC, a key element that might go in ASU’s favor is the simplicity of the Trojans’ schemes on the offensive line.
“What they do, they’re pretty good, but what they do is simple you know what I mean,” sophomore defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood said. “We aren’t really worried about how big they are, how fast they are.”
Instead, Smallwood said ASU plans to focus more on its own defensive scheme than on USC. Specifically, last week when Stanford upset then-No.6 USC, the Trojans’ offensive line had troubles combatting the Cardinal’s A-gap stunts. While ASU isn’t saying if it'll look to do the same, Longino said he’s just looking forward to the matchups and going against their first Pac-12 South opponent.
“This isn’t pressure,” Longino said. “This is what we want. The past is all over with. Cal Poly, New Mexico, this is what we want. This is what we came here for. To get to the top, this is what we’re ready to do.”
- Graham said Thursday that all offensive players who have been out – specifically sophomore running back Kalen Ballage and junior running back De'Chavon Hayes -- will play on Saturday against USC
- Junior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola was out of a green non-contact jersey and in a defensive white jersey at Thursday’s practice.