In the Pac-12 this season, there are two players that stand out above the rest, both in talent and importance. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is an obvious choice, guiding the Cardinal on an 11-game winning streak en route to future NFL riches. The other is Vontaze Burfict, who has carried the injury-depleted Arizona State defense.
The junior from Corona (Calif.) Centennial has four of the Sun Devils' nine sacks and seems to have eliminated the knuckleheaded penalties that put him on the bench and allowed USC and Stanford to extend late game winning drives last season. However, Burfict remains something of a liability in pass defense.
Fullback Stanley Havili had three receptions for 43 yards with a 22-yard touchdown catch last year in the Trojans' wild 34-33 win over Arizona State, while running backs Marc Tyler and Dillon Baxter combined for nine more grabs.
With former tight end Rhett Ellison now at fullback, young tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble coming into their own and a deep collection of tailbacks capable of catching the ball, Lane Kiffin must use play-action to lure Burfict in and allow quarterback Matt Barkley to attack the gaping holes created.
2. Pluck Pflugrad
Arizona State has a bevy of big receivers, but former Oregon wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad is the one that made Missouri pay. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds, he shredded the Tigers with eight receptions for 180 yard and two touchdowns in the 37-30 overtime win.
His ability to get deep causes concern for a secondary that gave up far too many explosive plays last season. USC has fared better in that regard, but has yet to face a passing attack as prolific as that of the Sun Devils.
With a suspect ground game, limiting big gains will be crucial to create opportunities to hit quarterback Brock Osweiler, sacked six times last week at Illinois.
3. Stay Special
After giving up a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown last season, USC must watch out as Arizona State has two special return men in junior Jamal Miles and sophomore Kyle Middlebrooks.
Miles had a 98-yard return for a score in the season opener and is averaging 13.5 yards per punt return, while the diminutive Middlebrooks is equally electrifying. That tandem leads the Pac-12 in kick returns, averaging 29.9 yards per attempt, so limiting their gains to control field position is a must.
However, the Sun Devils are weak in the kicking game and as poor in coverage as they are strong on returns.
This isn't the week for special teams coordinator John Baxter is finish with a draw.
4. Land of Confusion
The Trojans are waving a big old red flag in hopes of getting the attention of Pac-12 officials by drawing attention to Arizona State's history of playing after the whistle. Kiffin instructed the scout team all week to get cheap, while Barkley flat-out called Burfict a "dirty player" and left tackle Matt Kalil vowed to give it to the linebacker as well as he dishes it out.
But USC can't get drawn into a game of one-upmanship and the extra attention this week might inadvertently do that. With all the challenges that come with playing on the road, a battle of post-play physicality cannot be the ultimate aim over winning the game.
Composure will be a must.