Close Wins Do Not Imply Struggles

The Trojans won their last two games in a combined margin of twelve points. This is definitely not the 2005 USC version that steamrolled most of its opponents – that much ASU coach Dirk Koetter will agree on. On the other hand, he doesn't categorize his next opponent as a program who is going through some rough times these days.

"I wouldn't say USC has struggled at all, they have just had some close games," said Koetter in his weekly press conference. "I think that both Washington and Washington State did not beat themselves and gave themselves a chance to win at the end. USC is winning in different ways maybe then people are used to seeing them. I would not categorize what USC is doing as struggling; after all they are the number two team in the country."

Losing two Heisman trophy winners in running back Reggie Bush and quarterback Matt Leinart who play in the NFL has naturally taken a toll on USC. Nonetheless, the Trojans have other weapons that will concern Arizona State on Saturday. (USC Quarterback John David) Booty is doing a really good job," commented Koetter. "He is completing 66% of his passes and he is spreading the ball around. I think that USC's receivers are very talented. Coach (Pete) Carroll is talking about how they have had injury issues. (Dwayne) Jarrett, one of the best receivers to play in the Pac-10, has missed pretty much all of the last two games. (Chris) McFoy their steady number three receiver over the last three years, he is out at this point. Steve Smith was playing well up to this point is hurt…"

"They've had two great tailbacks (in Bush and LenDale White), up until this year, for the last several years," Koetter continued. "They lost some excellent offensive lineman to the NFL but still have a strong offensive line let by their center Ryan Kalil who may be the best center in the Pac-10." Koetter added that one characteristic of the USC offense, which is different than the last four years, is being less of a quick strike offense and more a team that goes on multi-play drives and controls the clock.

Ball control is certainly something that can aid the Sun Devils this weekend on the road, and ASU should have the tools to do so. "I'm sure Ryan Torain will have a nice role, as will Keegan Herring," noted Koetter. "I think that has been one thing that we are doing a good job of is running the ball. I think the offensive line and the tight ends, keyed by Zach Miller, are doing a really nice job blocking at the point of attack. Ryan has really shown that he is the kind of back that can break some tackles and can turn the corner with some speed. We certainly want to try to establish the run and keep this thing going…it is one of the things we are doing well and we have to build on it."

Speaking of Miller one possible explanation for his lack of catches could be the aforementioned role in the running game. There are however other factors than that. "We need to find ways to get the ball to Zach in the passing game," admitted Koetter. "I think the reason Zach didn't catch the ball much in the last two games is that our offense was way off base. I've never seen it like that. Zach is such an incredible team player; he will do whatever it takes. Zach's role as a blocker has expanded beyond where he was last year when he was primarily used as a tight end on the line of scrimmage as blocker. Now he is used more in a movement capacity as an h-back or even as a fullback at times. Zach has turned into such a great lead blocker. We need to combine that with using Zach in the passing game."

Whether it was turnovers, sacks, drops or penalties, the ASU offense has had various shortcomings on offense. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter has been front and center during these though times. "He isn't a quarterback who hasn't proved himself on the field," said Koetter of his sophomore signal caller. "He has proven he can do it on this level, and did on a very high level for the last half of the season last year. Rudy has gone through a little bit of a rough patch these last two weeks. Part of that is the fact that we have played two really good football teams in Cal and Oregon, and I think quarterbacks on all levels have a tendency to do that."

"We've been working on getting Rudy back to form and better than he was before," Koetter continued. "There are a lot of moving parts there, his confidence, the other players' confidence, mechanics. He has been getting hit too much, which is always going to take a toll on mechanics at some point. There are really four components to the passing game, what plays are being called for him, the protection aspect, the receivers doing the right thing, being in the right place at the right time and running their routes, and also the quarterback's part in it. Apparently, all four of those areas have been a little off. I've never been around a passing game in my career where all four of those areas are off as they were in the Oregon game. We are chipping away at it and we can't wait to get back out there."

Specifically regarding the receivers' play, Koetter remarked that "They've struggled some times to defeat one-on-one coverage. They've struggle at times to be in the right place at the right times and to be on the same page as Rudy. Of all those things we've struggled on in the passing game, that one is the easiest to correct. We are certainly working on it with the three extra days we have this week and the bye week. You have to be able to take it from the practice field to the game field."

According to ASU coaches and players, poor practices have seemed to have been the catalyst for the Sun Devils' recent struggles. Koetter claimed that this team aspect has been improving. "We've had different types of practice this week because didn't have a game this week," he stated. "We weren't focused primarily on scout teams we were going primarily on USC. We did some work against each other. We tried to improve fundamentally in some areas. We'll start our regular USC practices starting tomorrow. I think we are making some progress. I think last night (Sunday) our defense as a group had their best practice in a long long time. Unfortunately when you're going against each other and your defense plays well that comes at the expense of your offense."

Linebacker Derron Ware had a four-sack performance in the season opener against NAU, but his game has tapered off considerably as the season wore on. What does the Sun Devil skipper attribute those struggles to? "We have played much better teams since the first game where Derron had four sacks, where (ASU defensive coordinator) Bill Miller debuted Derron as a blitzing linebacker," explained Koetter. "Derron wouldn't have shown up on anyone's radar coming off last year. Now, when Derron walks up on the line scrimmage, offenses know he is our best speed rusher on our football team now. Like any team with a good pass rusher, teams are going to slide their line. In Oregon's case, every time we brought Derron up on the line of scrimmage to rush, they checked down to their screen plays. They are definitely aware of Derron, just like with any pass rusher who has success, there are ways to counteract that."

Despite Ware's struggles, Koetter feels that overall the ASU defense hasn't been playing as bad as the final scores against Cal and Oregon would imply. "The defense didn't give up 49 points at Cal, the defense gave up 28 points at Cal," he explained. "California had two interceptions for a touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown. In the Oregon game, our offense didn't give our defense a chance. We were down seven to nothing, and we took it right down the field and threw an interception in the end zone. Then it's 14 to zero and we went right back down the field, we couldn't score again and had to kick a field goal. In the Pac-10 you have to score points and you have to be able to match some of these high-powered offenses. The turnovers and the sacks and the penalties are hurting us. I really don't think our defense has gotten a fair chance because in the last two games our offense hasn't given our defense a chance."

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