The USC Trojans (3-1, 2-0 Pac-12 South), ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press (AP) poll and No. 20 by USA Today, wrap up a two-game homestand this Saturday, October 4 against the USA Today No. 24-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12 South) at 4:30 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national FOX network television audience. It’s the 31st meeting between the schools with USC owning a 19-11 edge, including victories in 12 of the past 14. The Sun Devils stomped the Trojans, 62-41, a season ago in Tempe, leading to the firing of then-USC coach Lane Kiffin, but the Trojans whipped ASU, 38-17, in the previous Los Angeles meeting in 2012.
A week ago, the USC defense recovered from its poor showing at Boston College by holding the Oregon State offense to a lone field goal in a 35-10 Trojan victory. The Beavers led 10-7 in the second quarter, thanks to a 97-yard kickoff return for a TD by Ryan Murphy, but the Trojans scored the game’s final 28 points, including a thrilling 48-yard Hail Mary touchdown catch by Darreus Rogers on the final play of the first half. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils were annihilated by UCLA, 62-27, on a hot Thursday night in Tempe. The Bruins scored four TDs of 80 yards or longer, including interception and kickoff returns by Ishmael Adams, and rolled up 582 yards of offense.
Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (3-1 at USC, 37-30 career) is in his first season at the helm after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). Arizona State headman Todd Graham (70-39 in nine seasons as a collegiate head coach, 21-10 at ASU) is in his third season with the Sun Devils. Arizona State’s offense is potent — the Devils had 626 yards of their own against UCLA, even with backup QB Mike Bercovici at the helm – but he’s a defensive specialist with an aggressive style who had to be gravely disappointed by last week’s showing. Perhaps a soft early schedule left the Devils unprepared to face an opponent at UCLA’s level?
Arizona State Offense
Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has worked with Graham for seven years. The Sun Devils’ multifaceted attack – which utilizes three-, four- and five-wide sets with a variation on the read-option – averaged nearly 40 points per game in their South Division championship season in 2013. So far in 2014, the Devils are averaging 42 points (16th nationally) and 560.2 total yards (ninth nationally), while leading the Pac-12 in rushing offense (262.8 yards per game). It appears senior quarterback Taylor Kelly will miss his second consecutive game with a right foot injury, leaving Bercovici to face the Trojans. While he doesn’t seem to be the running threat that Kelly is, the junior did come out firing in his first start against UCLA, setting school records for pass attempts (68) and completions (42) as the Devils set team records for total plays (105) and first downs (38). He’s a little undersized and does tend to sidearm throws from time to time. He threw two interceptions against the Bruins (the Devils had four turnovers overall), including a backbreaking pick-six to Adams right before halftime.
Bercovici does have plenty of support from ASU’s rushing attack, especially in multitalented junior D.J. Foster. Even after being held to 30 yards by UCLA, Foster has 540 rushing yards in 2014 (including 216 at New Mexico) and is averaging 8.6 yards per carry. Along with five TD runs, he’s also amassed four runs of 40 yards or longer. Additionally, Foster is the team’s second-leading receiver, with 16 catches (12.9 yards per) and one TD. Senior Deantre Lewis has seen limited duty, while two freshmen, Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, have also stepped in. Keep an eye on Ballage, who had a couple of nifty runs against UCLA.
Junior Jaelen Strong picked up right where he left off after an impressive 2013. A sizeable and physical target, he’s averaging 13.3 yards on a team-leading 31 catches, and already has two games in 2014 with 10 or more catches, including last week’s 12 against the Bruins. Sophomore slot man Cameron Smith has performed well, with 15 catches and is tied for the team lead with Strong and 6-foot-4 freshman Ellis Jefferson with two TD grabs. Experienced depth at receiver is an issue, but the Devils do tend to rotate six-to-eight players at the receiver and lesser-used tight end spots.
Arizona State returned three starters on the offensive line from 2013: senior Jamil Douglas (LT), junior Vi Teofilo (RG) and senior Tyler Sulka (RT). Juniors Christian Westerman (LG), a highly ranked recruit in 2011 who didn’t pan out at Auburn and returned home to Arizona, and Nick Kelly (center) round out a group that’s allowed just five sacks and has helped pave the way for Foster and the Devils’ quick-hitting rushing attack.
Arizona State Defense
New defensive coordinator Keith Patterson’s relationship with Graham dates to their days as college roommates in Texas. However, the duo behind the Devils’ defense must be searching for answers. ASU had to replace nine starters from last season’s squad, and opening with Weber State and New Mexico helped ease that transition. However, in their past two outings, the Sun Devils have allowed 545 total yards (313 passing) to Colorado and 580 total yards (355 passing) to UCLA. The Devils rank dead last in the conference in rush defense, and tackling has been a big issue. Where the Devils were extremely opportune in 2013, forcing 33 turnovers, ASU has only forced six turnovers in four games in 2014.
Up front, the loss of Will Sutton to the NFL was massive. The Devils are rotating players at the three down-lineman spots, searching for an answer. Junior Jaxon Hood is one of the Devils’ most experienced players and is splitting reps at nose tackle with Demetrius Cherry. Cherry is also sharing time with true freshman Tashon Smallwood at another inside spot, while senior Marcus Hardison has the Devil line’s only sack of the season among his nine tackles from the end spot. He’s been the clear standout in this group so far, though sophomore Viliami Latu will also see time.
The Devils’ losses at linebacker, including stud Carl Bradford, were almost as severe. Only sophomore Salamo Fiso returned as a starter, and he has 21 tackles, including a sack, from his strong side spot. Elsewhere, the Devils are mixing and matching – perhaps nowhere more extensively than at their hybrid linebacker/rush end spot, which they call the “Devil” backer. Junior Antonio Longino (24 tackles, one sack) has seen the most time, but he’s listed as a co-starter with senior De’Marieya Nelson (three tackles) and sophomore Edmond Boateng (a sack among his two tackles). Sophomore Viliami Moeakiola (20 tackles, 3.5 for loss) starts at the “Spur” linebacker spot, while true freshman D.J. Calhoun (18 tackles) is on the weak side. Freshman Christian Sam may also see time at both of those positions Saturday.
Arizona State’s only other returning starter, senior Damarious Randall, leads the team with 38 tackles from the strong safety position. Junior Jordan Simone starts at free safety and has 25 stops (13 against Colorado), one INT and a fumble recovery. But it’s a big concern for any team when its top two tacklers play in the secondary. Freshman James Johnson also sees time at free safety and in the nickel. At corner, sophomore Lloyd Carrington (seven stops) patrols the boundary side, while many opponents have gone after true freshman Armand Perry (19 tackles) across the way. Junior Kweishi Brown rotates in at both corner spots and in the nickel.
Arizona State Special Teams
Sophomore Zane Gonzalez has been solid on field goals (five-of-six, missing only a 44-yarder at New Mexico) but has missed two of his 21 PAT attempts. He has plenty of leg, as his 49-yarder against UCLA showed. Senior Alex Garoutte handles kickoffs and though he has 11 touchbacks in 31 tries, ASU’s kick coverage team ranks near the bottom of the conference. Sophomore Matt Haack has been solid (43.5 yards per boot) but again, the Devils’ punt coverage has been shaky. Randall is the punt returner but hasn’t done much, and Ballage (17.7 per return in three tries) is the kick returner.
USC Offensive Gameplan
The Trojan offense remained in sputter mode for much of the first half against Oregon State – especially in the running game – until falling behind 10-7 early in the second quarter. The Trojans’ next drive, though, saw quarterback Cody Kessler use his elusiveness in the pocket to find receivers down the field, opening up the USC attack and leading to a 16-yard TD reception by tailback Justin Davis. After the aforementioned Hail Mary play to close out the first half, the Trojans appeared to simplify the design in their rushing attack, hitting the Beavers quickly between the tackles on two TD drives – perhaps best displayed by Javorius “Buck” Allen’s 17-yard TD run that made it 28-10.
However, USC’s struggles on first-and-10 continued throughout much of the contest – and unless the Trojans can improve, there’s no way that they’ll continue to convert on third down at their currently impressive 46-percent clip. With such a young group on the line – and a number of players sharing time up front due to the pace Sarkisian wants to play along with nagging injuries – perhaps it would behoove the coaching staff to look more closely at the success they had with the design of the rushing offense in the second half.
Against the Devils, though, expect Sarkisian to finally look to use the pass to set up the run. The ASU secondary has struggled mightily, and its linebacking corps hasn’t inspired confidence in their cover or tackling skills in the short middle of the field. Yes, while ASU’s rush defense is last in the conference, the Sun Devils are also allowing almost 300 passing yards per game. Expect the Trojans to look – early and often – down the seams of the Devil defense. If the Trojans can get Nelson Agholor, Juju Smith and the dangerous tight end duo of Randall Telfer and Bryce Dixon going early, don’t be surprised to see Allen and Davis pound ASU on the ground in the second half.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Though USC put up impressive numbers against Oregon State QB Sean Mannion – 123 passing yards, only 181 total yards – things were shaky for much of the first half. Aside from Su’a Cravens first-quarter pick-six, the Trojans were struggling again on the edges against the run. However, an outstanding play by Adoree’ Jackson that led to a Leon McQuay interception in the end zone sparked the USC defense, which basically turned the Beaver offense off like a spigot from that moment forward. Cravens was a revelation at the strong side linebacker spot, making play after play, and the Trojan defense eventually got pressure up the middle and kept contain on the edges to dominate the second half.
However, facing the pro-style, huddle-up offense of the Beavers is nothing like facing the frenetic pace and multiple options of the Sun Devils. Though Kelly, who absolutely destroyed USC last season (351 passing yards, 3 TDs, 79 yards rushing) appears to be unavailable, the Trojans are still facing a tall task with Foster and Strong leading the way for ASU.
There are three things to look out for on Saturday: can USC limit the effectiveness of Foster like UCLA did; can USC keep the Devils from breaking big plays down the middle of the field in the short-to-intermediate passing game; and can the Trojans force Bercovici into making key mistakes? The Trojan defense has been solid on first down (aside from the BC debacle) and downright outstanding on third down. Slowing Foster early in every series will help keep the Trojans effective on third down. Bercovici is not a strong-armed passer, so ASU will likely look for mismatches in the short-middle that can turn into big gainers, as well as take advantage of Strong’s size along the sidelines. But Bercovici is still making only his second start and he made a couple of huge errors against UCLA – one that turned the game in the Bruins’ favor. If USC can put ASU into third-down passing situations consistently, the opportunistic Trojan defense (nine turnovers forced in four games) could make a couple of big plays.
USC got just what it needed out of the Oregon State game – it won, it stayed healthy, it regained confidence on defense and in the running attack, and it still had plenty to work on, what with some of the first-half issues and another penalty-marred performance. (Is that something USC needs to work on or the Pac-12?) The Trojans should be confident heading into Saturday afternoon’s contest but in no way overconfident.
Will USC use last season’s embarrassing defeat in Tempe as motivation for revenge? To an extent, that’s the natural way athletes react. But once the game gets rolling, this will be less about getting back at the Devils and more about USC executing a solid gameplan on offense and, defensively, forcing the Devil offense into mistakes.
The first quarter will be crucial – ASU is outscoring opponents 63-13 in the opening quarter; the Trojans, 45-7. Who will get the jump? Look for USC’s offense to show the personality and pace of the Fresno State game – Sarkisian knows the Trojans can run circles around the Devils if they execute. So it comes down to how the defense fares against ASU’s attack. The Sun Devils will put up some points, undoubtedly. But though the Arizona State had more than 600 yards of offense against UCLA, its per-play average was so-so. USC will keep ASU in check, avoid the big play, force Bercovici to beat them on third down – and take advantage when he errs.
USC 45, Arizona State 31
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).
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