SunDevilSource: We knew USC had a very difficult schedule right out of the gate and a lot of new things to adjust to including a true first-year head coach, a new defensive coordinator and a new quarterback. What has gone to expectation and what has been a surprise in the 1-3 start for the Trojans?
Ryan Abraham: There has certainly been several more surprises than anticipated this season, but when you cover USC you almost become numb to crazy, unexpected events. Certainly the possibility of a 1-3 start was talked about, but I am not sure anyone who understood (or thought they did) how much talent USC had accumulated really believed this is where the Trojans would be after the first month of the season.
Offensively the quarterback shakeup was baffling. Once Max Browne was selected after fall camp we expected him to start for more than just three games. It was bizarre how he was replaced so quickly considering there were so many other offensive problems outside of the signal caller. But in the end, Sam Darnold does look like the better quarterback which begs the question, why wasn't he named the starter a few weeks before? The other unexpected turn was the horrific play of the offensive line. A very talented and experienced front five looked to be in better shape and playing hard and fast with new coach Neil Callaway, but the results on the field have been far, far below expectations.
Defensively you certainly didn't expect two players kicked off the team including a former five-star linebacker. Clancy Pendergast's squad has also given up a lot of big plays on defensive breakdowns and the pass rush has been nonexistent. Last time he was at USC he incorporated a much more aggressive style, something he will need to get back to for this unit to have some success deeper into the Pac-12 schedule.
SunDevilSource: Is there already any sense that head coach Clay Helton's job is being scrutinized to the point that it's a distraction, or is that just external noise that hasn't infiltrated the program?
Abraham: Clay Helton's job status has dominated the talk on social media and our message boards. Debates over how many games he has to win to keep his job go on daily. After Les Miles was fired and replacement coaches were discussed by the national media USC found its way into the conversation as a possible landing spot for upwardly mobile coaches.
That is all outside of the program. Has that narrative made it inside the program? I think the players and coaches are aware what a hot topic it is, but so far we have not seen it having an impact on their preparation. Clay Helton remains a popular head coach among his players and I expect them to continue to play hard for him. A couple more losses could change that, but for now it doesn't seem to be a big distraction.
SunDevilSource: How is the adjustment to first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast going? Are players picking it up as quickly as hoped and is the personnel well suited for it?
Abraham: I think the players have picked up Pendergast's scheme fairly quickly. His philosophy is to run a simpler defense, one gap instead of two and more man coverage.
What we haven't seen as much of are the blitzes and that has limited the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. USC is also running a ton of nickel coverage, even against teams focusing on the run. Utah ran 12-straight run plays out of the gate, but because they typically had three wide receivers on the field USC stayed in nickel the entire time.
Pendergast is also not doing much in the way of substituting. The starters essentially play the entire game with a player or two coming in and out for different packages. That hurt USC against Utah who ran 81 plays compared to USC's 59. That isn't going to be able to continue, especially with some high octane offenses coming up.
SunDevilSource: USC has very good skill players on offense and inexperience at quarterback. How are the Trojans doing in terms of getting all these weapons performing efficiently and tapping into their potential?
Abraham: USC does have a lot of talent at the skill positions, but the whole is currently less than the sum of its parts. You are seeing a good play here or a good play there, but so far we have not seen this group play as a cohesive unit.
Last week against Utah, Justin Davis was averaging 12.6 yards per carry, but he didn't get the ball once in the 4th quarter. Juju Smith-Schuster only had 99 yards receiving through three games. That was a decent half of football for him last year. Adoree Jackson gets a play or two on offense and that has been it. Tight end Tyler Petite played just 8 plays against Utah after making several huge plays against Stanford the week before.
And now you have a new redshirt freshman quarterback trying to make sense of it all.
This is an offense that has talent but so far has not established any sense of an identity.
SunDevilSource: What are the signs that USC is playing well on offense and defense, and what things tend to be problems when it's not going well?
Abraham: Offensively it is pretty simple. USC can't turn the ball over (three fumbles in the first half against Utah) or commit pre-snap penalties (four false starts in the first quarter against Stanford). The Arizona State defense has shown it can give up some points, so the Trojans can't help the Sun Devils by stopping themselves.
Defensively USC has to figure out a way to generate some pressure on the quarterback, limit the breakdowns in the secondary and rotate more players into the mix. The Sun Devil offense is great at confusing defenders and getting athletes either wide open or in mismatch situations, so USC will need to play disciplined football and not give up quick and easy chunk plays.
SunDevilSource: What is your expectation for the type of game we'll see Saturday, and what's your prediction on the score?
Abraham: I honestly have no idea how this game is going to go. The last I checked, the Trojans, with the lowest scoring offense in the conference, are a 10-point favorite over the top scoring offense in the Pac-12. I wouldn't be shocked by any result, a close game or a blowout by either side.
I do expect Darnold to play well in his second start and the Trojans to make some big plays on special teams. Defensively I am just not sure, I could see that unit step up and play well or get run out of the Coliseum.
So having no clue how this is going to turn out I'll predict ASU wins a crazy one 45-42.null