ASU players, coaches evaluate USC

ASU coaches and players offered their evaluations of the Trojans' offensive and defensive schemes

The last time Arizona State made a trip to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum it walked out victorious after a last-second game-winning Hail Mary catch by former ASU wide receiver Jaelen Strong.

It was a season-defining win for a 2014 ASU team that was 3-1 headed into the matchup after getting stomped by UCLA, 62-27 at home, the week before. Including its Hail Mary win against the Trojans, ASU went 7-2 for the rest of the season, including a 36-31 win against Duke in the Sun Bowl. ASU finished the year 10-3.

“Being both opponents (ASU and USC) in the Pac-12 South, it was more of a must-win game for us and that was coming off the UCLA game and that was huge,” ASU senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola said. “That just helped us understand what we were capable of.”

Headed back to the Coliseum on Saturday, ASU is 4-0 and looks to add another win to its resume. This time, the Sun Devils are just hoping the outcome of the game wont be decided at the last minute.  

“I just remember (former ASU quarterback) Mike Bercovici falling face first in the grass laying there and I remember the picture of me jumping into the pile when Jaelen (Strong) was trying to get from up under the pile and that was a legendary win for our school and program and hopefully it doesn’t have to come down to that again this week, but it was something you will never forget,” ASU junior running back Demario Richard said.

For 1-3 USC, its game against ASU on Saturday could make or break its season. A win could possibly put the Trojans back in the running in the Pac-12 South, but a loss could possibly end USC’s hopes for the season.

The Trojans’ lone win this year came against Utah State on Sept. 10 after USC lost its season opener 52-6 to Alabama. After falling in back-to-back weeks against two ranked teams in Stanford and Utah, the Trojans are now 1-5 overall under head coach Clay Helton.

USC first-year offensive coordinator Tee Martin is in his first year of play-calling for the Trojans and has started fairly slow. USC’s offense has specifically taken a lot of criticism, ranking last in scoring offense in the Pac-12 with a 22-point per game average.

For ASU, it will be facing a pro-style offense after multiple games against Air Raid offenses that exposed its secondary.

“(Senior cornerback) De'Chavon Hayes, (sophomore cornerback) Kareem Orr they are battle tested,” ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing said. “They got a lot of pass plays on film already. They’ve been attacked everywhere you can be attacked and so now it’s just honing in on our skills and seeing what we have to get better at.” 

Looking at USC’s Pro-style offense and specifically its personnel on offense, multiple ASU defenders praised the talent USC has on its roster despite the Trojans’ 1-3 record headed into Saturday’s matchup.

“They are probably the most talented 1-3 team,” Moeakiola said. “The opponents they faced the last four weeks might have been the toughest four teams you can play opening. Watching the film, there’s no doubt they have the talent and the playmakers that they have and the biggest part is us going in there with the mindset and focus that we need.”

Moeakiola said a team like USC will feature more downhill running and a lot of looks in the vertical passing game.

The Trojans will start redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold on Saturday night for Darold’s second-career start. His first was against Utah after USC decided to bench junior quarterback Max Browne after three games.

Browne started the year as USC’s No. 1 quarterback after spending three seasons waiting in the wings for his shot behind former USC quarterback Cody Kessler.

Darnold, 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, threw for 253 yards and ran for a touchdown in his first career start.

“This guy (Darnold), he’s good,” Rushing said. “He’s a good ball player. He’s not a guy that is going to give it away to you. He’s not going to throw the ball into bad spots. He does a good job of locating the ball and a really good arm talent and good legs to extend plays and he’s a challenge. I wished he was a first-year player that wasn’t really good so I could sleep better at night, but he is a first-year player that has stuff to him.” 

While USC is more inexperienced at the quarterback position, there is far from a lack of experience across the Trojans’ offensive line and in their receiving corps. Graham said USC’s receivers are “probably the best receiving corps top to bottom in the league” that ASU is going to face.

“I think what’s helped us is we have gone against some really good receivers,” Graham said. “The Emmanuel Butler kid from NAU and (Texas) Tech had two receivers that were really outstanding and Cal obviously. I think that prepares you but you better get used to it because that’s going to be every week. We have to do a good job tackling in space and do a great job in our coverages and make sure we don’t have any flaws or defects as far as breakdowns.”

USC junior receiver Juju Smith-Schuster leads the Trojans in receiving with 19 receptions for 197 yards and two touchdowns this season. Smith-Schuster is one of four USC receivers who has 10 or more receptions this season.

“You trust your training,” Rushing said regarding defending multiple offensive weapons. “You go back to the stuff coaches have been harping on all spring all summer all fall. All the first four games and you trust it…they (USC) are going to spread the ball. All their guys are big play guys so you better do your technique and do it to the best of your ability or they are going to exploit you.”

Alongside Smith-Schuster is USC senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers, who has 18 catches for 211 yards, averaging 11.7 yards per catch this season. Orr said Rogers is a real deep threat and is like Smith-Schuster except a little taller and faster.

“I’ve actually been seeing a lot out of No. 1, Darreus Rogers,” Orr said. “Him and JuJu have been getting the ball the same amount so we are just going to go back to field and boundary and they are going to both come to either side so I’m just going to get a fair amount of both of them.” 

As far as the Trojans’ offensive line goes, USC senior right tackle Zach Banner has been starting for the past three seasons at right tackle and opened the year as an All-American candidate. Banner did not practice on Wednesday, but Helton told USC reporters he expected Banner to be back at practice on Thursday. 

Last season the 6-foot-9, 360-pound lineman was on the All-Pac-12 first team.

Opposite from Banner is 6-foot-6, 310-pound senior left tackle Chad Wheeler. A four-year starter, Wheeler is USC’s most experienced offensive lineman. USC junior guard Damien Mama is a second year starter at left guard for the Trojans. Last season Mama, 6-foot-4, 325 pounds, was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention. 

“They are big, big-framed and everything like that, but they aren’t mobile like that,” junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun said. “I think it helps with our speeds, doing cuts and stuff like that.”

Junior Devil backer Alani Latu said ASU’s goal against USC’s bigger linemen will to play with leverage and use their hands to establish positioning.

ASU special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach Shawn Slocum said the line is very talented in protection and when it comes to running the ball. Graham said USC’s group of running backs are as good as there is in the Pac-12, and have the benefit of playing behind the strength of USC’s offensive line.  

In the run game, USC is ranked No. 9 in the Pac-12, averaging 135.2 yards per game behind a trio of running backs in the rotation. The Trojans’ rushing attack is led by senior tailback Justin Davis, who has 47 carries for 261 yards and one touchdown this season.

USC runs a lot of power behind its right guard, Mama, and a lot of inside and outside zone runs, similar to the run concepts that ASU runs as well.

USC sophomore running back Ronald Jones broke USC's freshman rushing record last season, running for 987 yards, scoring eight touchdowns and averaging 6.5 yards per carry. This season, Jones is only averaging 4.3 yards per carry and has one touchdown off 31 carries for 132 yards.

“Those guys are downhill runners, a lot of teams we played have outside runners and this guy (Davis) gets the ball and goes straight downhill,” Latu said. “These guys are a Pro-style offense and I think our defense can handle it and I think we will be good against their run offense.”

Moeakiola said overall USC just has talented playmakers who are dangerous every time they get the ball.

“It's USC,” Richard said. “They come to play every week. Athletic on defense, very athletic, very talented on offense. Very disciplined. It’s USC. It’s what you expect from them. We are just ready to play.”

USC Defense

Two freshman All-American players return to the USC defense alongside multiple veteran playmakers in the front seven and in the secondary.

USC sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith is probably the Trojans’ best defensive player. Smith was a freshman All-American last season along with USC sophomore cornerback Iman Marshall.

Smith leads the team in tackles this year with 43, two tackles for loss, one pass breakup, and one forced fumble and fumble recovery. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound linebacker had 15 tackles, one forced fumble and a batted pass in USC’s loss to Utah Friday night.

“They are big, physical. No. 42 (junior inside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu) and No. 45 (USC sophomore defensive end Porter Gustin), they are big physical guys and No. 35 (Smith) is a big physical guy and No. 19 (senior linebacker Michael Hutchings) is a good player," ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said. "They are big on the interior. They are the biggest group we have played.”

Smith was the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and started nine games in 2015 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in week 10. Before getting hurt, he was on pace to be the first true freshman to top the Trojans in tackles in a season since records were first kept in 1954.

“I think their D-ends stand out to me,” ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl said. “They seem athletic and they both have size. One (Gustin) is 6-5, 240, yeah he’s a big dude and the other (Smith) is 6-3, 245, kind of my size and he’s athletic. They have a middle linebacker that has a bigger size to him and they have their secondary that is really fast and it’s just a good defense.”

In addition to Smith, Gustin is another threat to ASU’s offense.

Sophomore tight end Jay Jay Wilson said Gustin is a high-effort player and he’s going to be a challenge coming off the edge.

This season, Gustin has recorded 32 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks. Last year as a freshman, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound player appeared in all 14 games for USC and had 25 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

“He doesn’t give up,” Wilson said. “He is going to give me that second effort and he’s going to make those late plays. We have to stay on our blocks longer and got to stay on our blocks on the linebackers. They are all athletic and all very good.”

Marshall leads the USC secondary alongside USC junior Adoree Jackson. Jackson returns for his third year as a starting cornerback and also makes an impact as a wide receiver and returner.

“Obviously their secondary is very athletic,” Wilson said. “All we got to do is be physical. I feel like if we are physical like we have been being physical, that they will end up folding, but yeah we can’t take them lightly. They are a pretty great team and obviously their talent is up there with the best of them. We just got to stay together and continue to do what we are doing.”

This season under USC first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, the Trojans have been allowing an average of 29.2 points per game (No. 9 in Pac-12) and 394.5 yards per game (No. 7 in Pac-12). 

USC’s defense is extremely multiple and has shown a lot of base nickel in addition to a 40 front a lot of the time with two main down linemen and have two linebackers who stand up on the edges.

USC doesn’t blitz a lot, only managing four sacks this season, ahead of only Washington State in the Pac-12. Thomsen said the Trojans’ defensive line is going to handle the pressure on the front very well and while they may not have a lot of sacks, they are around the quarterback a lot.

“Utah didn’t throw the ball a whole lot so their opportunities against Utah were limited and you know a lot of sacks is how much do you throw and how many shots are they getting at you and stuff like that,” Thomsen said. “So if you look at the teams they played, they are more run-oriented. Alabama was more with their athletic quarterback, not drop back. Stanford dropped back some, but they are more run-oriented and Utah ran the ball a lot so they just haven’t had a lot of opportunities to get after the passer.”

ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said like a lot of defenses, USC adjusts to who it is playing and the Trojans have played teams like Alabama who are maybe a little more traditional in some respects than Pac-12 teams.

“They play a lot of four down to me, which if you go back to our game the last time we played them it was a lot of four down linemen so I mean he’s changed a little bit, but they are very sound,” Thomsen said. “The way I see them lined up they don’t get out of position and they are very sound job, making sure they are aligned correctly to everything. They are big and physical and they play hard. They do a great job.”

In Pendergast’s 5-2 look, USC sophomore defensive tackle Malik Dorton comes onto the field and becomes the third down lineman with his hand down and USC transitions from a 40 front to a 50 front, with three down linemen and two stand up players at the line of scrimmage.

“I see that a lot in the Pac this year (four down linemen),” Thomsen said. “In my first years in the Pac there was a lot more 3-4 and what I’m seeing in the film is more 4-3 looks and I guess it’s just evolving that way and he (Pendergast) looks to be mostly four down is what I see.”

Compared to Cal’s defense last week, Thomsen said Cal had a good front, but USC’s group is a lot bigger and has bigger bodies inside. Kohl said USC is a lot more physical than Cal, which he sees as a strength for ASU.

“I think it’s easier to block physical people for footwork reasons, but they are better than Cal’s defense for sure so it’s just going to be a challenge this week,” Kohl said.  

In addition to USC’s main playmakers on offense and defense, its special teams play will be a key factor against ASU on Saturday. USC is No. 1 in the Pac-12 in punt return with a 40.2-yard average and one touchdown with Jackson in charge of both punt and kickoff duties.  

“First of all he (Jackson) has got a lot of God-given ability,” Slocum said. “He’s a tremendous runner and is very aggressive in catching the ball and just because you’re down there on him if you give him any space to get started or right after the catch he will get off the spot and he’s electric once he’s done that.”

ASU sophomore safety Armand Perry said Jackson is one of his good friends and called him, “one of the most explosive players across the country."

“It is a blessing that I am going up against Adoree’ Jackson,” ASU sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey said. “I haven’t really gone up against him. I’ve never at all. It’s going to be fun.

“I came out (of high school) the same year as him and just watching him on TV, he blew up and just watching him I felt like he was humble and he is still humble, but we are just going to go out there and compete with him,” Harvey said.


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