USC vs. ASU Game Preview

With last weekend’s belly flop and the Trojans’ recent history in Tempe, Saturday night’s tilt feels more important than your average late September game.

Game 4: ‘So You’ve Had a Little Trouble in Town, Now You’re Keeping Some Demons Down’

The USC Trojans (2-1, 0-1 in the Pac-12), ranked No. 19 by the Associated Press (AP) and No. 18 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, hit the road for the first time in 2015, visiting the Arizona State Sun Devils (2-1) on Saturday, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. PDT in Tempe’s Sun Devil Stadium and in front of a national ESPN cable television audience. It’s the 32nd meeting between USC and ASU with the Trojans holding a 19-12 edge. However, the Sun Devils have won three of the past four meetings, including last season’s memorable “Jael Mary” 38-34 victory in the Coliseum. ASU has won the past two desert matchups convincingly – 62-41 in 2013 and 43-22 in 2011.

Last weekend, the Trojan defense stumbled mightily in a 41-31 loss to visiting Stanford. After USC led 21-10 midway through the second quarter, the Cardinal scored a pair of TDs to take a three-point edge into halftime. In the second half, the Cardinal offense slowly bled the Trojan defense, converting time and again on third down while creating a two-to-one edge in time of possession. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils won their second consecutive home game, 34-10 against New Mexico, on Friday, Sept. 18. ASU’s offense continued to perform in fits and starts, but senior quarterback Mike Bercovici threw for 317 yards and three TDs.

USC Coach Steve Sarkisian (11-5 at USC; 45-34 career collegiate head coaching record) is in his second season at the helm of the Trojans after leading Washington from 2009-13. In his fourth season in Tempe, Arizona State headman Todd Graham (30-13 at ASU, 21-8 Pac-12; 79-42 overall) has built the Sun Devils into a factor in the Pac-12 South. Back-to-back 10-win seasons gave ASU some buzz coming into 2015, but that was muted in a season-opening 38-17 loss to then-unranked Texas A&M in Houston.

Arizona State Offense

Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense ranks 10th nationally in scoring average (37.7 points per game) since the beginning of the 2012 season. ASU has been exceptional in utilizing its multifaceted, three-, four- and five-wide sets in the red zone the past two seasons, as well as especially deadly after the defense forces a turnover. However, with some skill position shifts and a couple of key early injuries, ASU’s offense has not been reached its recent level so far in 2015. The Devils rank ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring (28.7 points per game) and rushing (157.3 yards per game) and eighth in total offense (423.7 yards per game). They’ve also fumbled 10 times, losing four. Bercovici enters Saturday as the Devils’ unquestioned emotional leader. It’s hard to believe that last season’s shocker in the Coliseum, in which he threw for 510 yards and five TDs, was just his second career start. His arm has been the Devils’ most valuable asset thus far in 2015, and he’s also been more willing to use his feet of late – a concern after Stanford’s Kevin Hogan made a series of crucial runs against the Trojans last week.

Sophomore Demario Richard has carried the rushing load after multitalented senior D.J. Foster shifted mainly to receiver during the offseason. Richard averages 5.3 yards per carry. He’s also been a big factor in the passing attack, grabbing eight passes for 178 yards, including a 93-yard TD against New Mexico. Foster’s remained a threat on the ground (averaging nearly five yards in 20 carries, many of those against Cal Poly on Sept. 12). The Devils could get a boost this week with the return of sophomore Kalen Ballage, who was especially effective in the red zone last year, but missed the first three games with mononucleosis. JC transfer De’Chavon Hayes (who can also play out of the slot) has been nursing a hamstring injury, but his speed could be a factor.

After losing Jaelen Strong to the NFL and presumed No. 1 receiver Cameron Smith to injury, Foster’s move to receiver came as a necessity. He’s caught a pass in 43 consecutive games, and is four receiving yards away from becoming the fourth player in NCAA history with more than 2,000 rushing yards and 2,000 receiving yards. Out of the slot, though, his team-leading 16 catches have gone for an average of just 7.6 yards. UCLA transfer Devin Lucien is second on the team with 13 grabs, but he left the New Mexico game with an upper leg injury and is questionable for Saturday. That leaves a group of unproven targets, including the sizeable Ellis Jefferson, a sophomore, and Gary Chambers, a senior. Junior receiver Tim White and junior tight end Kody Kohl also are involved. Kohl is perhaps the most dangerous option around the goal line.

The Sun Devils knew any questions about their offensive line would come at the tackle spots, with solid returnees in senior right guard Vi Teofilo, senior center Nick Kelly, and standout senior left guard Christian Westerman. The position duel at the tackle spots has yet to shake out – due to minor injuries and so-so performances. Senior William McGehee, junior Evan Goodman, and redshirt freshman Sam Jones have split time so far – perhaps one of the reasons ASU has given up 11 sacks in three games (nine by Texas A&M), ranking last in the Pac-12 and No. 123 nationally.

Arizona State Defense

Second-year defensive coordinator Keith Patterson works closely with the Graham, as well as co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball, whose specialty is pass defense. The ASU defense prides itself on attacking from everywhere in a hybrid 3-4 set – and 2015 has been no different, as ASU is averaging 8.7 tackles for loss per game to lead the Pac-12. The Devils also have seven sacks through three games, even though their two previous opponents – Cal Poly and New Mexico – are heavily run-oriented, triple-option teams. Perhaps that’s what’s skewed Arizona State’s overall defensive statistics, as the Devils rank last in the conference in rushing defense (215.3 yards per game) but first in pass defense (134.7 yards per).

Up front, junior Viliami Latu is expected back from an injury he suffered against Cal Poly. The defensive tackle had impressed early, with two tackles for loss and a sack against Texas A&M. But athletic sophomore Tashon Smallwood has also impressed from that spot, leading ASU defensive linemen with 15 stops in three games. Latu also rotates with nose tackle Demetrius Cherry (six tackles). At end, junior Edmund Boateng is being pushed by true freshman JoJo Wicker, who notched his first career sack against the Lobos.

Arizona State returned a lot of depth at linebacker. Junior strong sider Salamo Fiso is in his third season as a starter and counts 23 solo stops among his 28 total tackles. Sophomore Christian Sam has burst on to the scene on the weak side, with a team-leading three sacks and 29 tackles, and when classmate D.J. Calhoun rotates in, Sam often replaces Fiso. At the “Devil,” a hybrid linebacker/rush end spot, senior Antonio Longino (15 tackles, two for loss) sees the bulk of the snaps. Junior Laiu Moeakiola starts at “Spur” linebacker and is tied for the team lead with 5.5 tackles for loss. Keep an eye out for sophomore James Johnson, a safety whom the Devils have been grooming for some hybrid duty.

The Sun Devils also returned solid experience in the secondary, led by senior strong safety Jordan Simone. He is the team leader in tackles (29), tackles for loss (5.5) and interceptions (two). The Devils did suffer a tough loss when sophomore free safety Armand Perry (15 tackles) hurt his ankle against Cal Poly. He missed the New Mexico game and appears to be a long shot to return Saturday. True freshman Kareem Orr, who was seeing some work in the nickel, replaced Perry last week, but Saturday will be his first big test. Seniors Lloyd Carrington (16 tackles) and Kweishi Brown bring plenty of experience to the cornerback spots, while classmate Solomon Means is the third corner.

Arizona State Special Teams

Junior Zane Gonzalez, who has had an outstanding career at ASU, is three-of-four on field goals so far in 2015, but hasn’t attempted one longer than 28 yards. He’s also been a factor in a kickoff return defense unit that ranks second nationally. Junior punter Matt Haack is right on his average of 2014 – 43.3 yards per boot, but the Devils, who struggled with punt return defense in 2014, gave up a TD in the opener against Texas A&M. The dangerous Hayes is the top choice on punt and kickoff returns.

USC Offensive Game Plan

Often, after a loss to Stanford, you’d expect some complaints about the USC offense. However, the Trojans performed well – averaging more than 7 yards per play, scoring on four-of-five red-zone opportunities, and mounting touchdown drives of 76, 75, and 86 yards in the first half. The big problem? The defense couldn’t get Cody Kessler the ball – USC’s time of possession was just more than 20 minutes, and fewer than nine in the second half.

Sure, the Trojans dumped the running game in the second half after having great success in the first half – but at least some of that can be attributed to playing catch up from 10 points down on their final two drives. Some bad penalties and a big three-and-out after Stanford took a 31-28 lead left a bad taste. But, if I’d told you before the game that USC would score 31 points, rush for 155 yards on 5.5 yards per carry, with Kessler completing nearly 79 percent of his passes, and Juju Smith-Schuster making eight catches for 153 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown, I’m pretty sure you’d think that was enough for a Trojan victory.

Now, this group must respond well in its first road test against a much more high-risk, high-reward defense. After facing two triple-option teams, there’s no doubt that the Sun Devils are looking forward to letting it all hang out against the Trojan offense. Can the offensive line give Kessler the opportunity to make plays? Though ASU’s numbers against the run are poor, expect USC to test its secondary early and often in an effort to create running lanes for its stable of tailbacks against the Sun Devils’ aggressive front. USC rolled up nearly 500 yards against ASU’s defense a year ago, and with the Devils’ offense moving just as quickly as the Trojans like to, it’s unlikely they’ll play keep away like Stanford did.

USC Defensive Game Plan

On the other hand, the Trojan defense is back to square one. After showing tremendous depth in heavy rotations the first two weekends, USC stuck with its core group of starters for much of this game – even with the opportunity given by Stanford’s slow-to-the-line offense to mine that depth for an answer. After being outstanding on third downs in the first two games, USC was atrocious, allowing the Cardinal to convert two-thirds of the time – even though Stanford faced an average of nearly seven yards to go on 12 opportunities.

The Trojan defensive line went from an apparently deep asset to a question mark in the span of three hours. Unable to mount much of a pass rush, unable to slow Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, and unable even to contain a hobbled Hogan on key scrambles, this group has much to prove on Saturday. With nose tackle (and D-line leader) Antwaun Woods nursing injuries this week and questionable for Saturday, the Trojans have no choice but to dig back into their platoon system against the fast-paced Sun Devils in the desert heat.

Moving on from Stanford’s grind-it-out mentality to the frenetic Sun Devils and their varied sets is a huge challenge – even without last week’s pratfall. Bercovici and, before him, Taylor Kelly have shredded the USC defense the past two seasons. But the Devils have some issues this time around – troubles at tackle, lack of a dependable downfield receiving threat, healthy depth at running back. The Trojans must keep an eye on Foster. He’s versatile and can hit you from just about anywhere. USC must get pressure on Bercovici, especially off the edges – while still maintaining containment. Finally, the Trojans must avoid giving up the big play that starts as something innocuous – most of ASU’s long gainers start out looking like nothing more than a five-to-10-yard play.

The Pick

USC dominated two weaker opponents while Arizona State took a while to dispose of each of theirs – and both struggled mightily against their best opponents. In Los Angeles, I’d pick SC to take this one fairly convincingly, but in Tempe – which has been a house of horrors on the Trojans’ past two trips – doubts arise. Add in the fact that it’s the Trojans’ first road trip of the season, and the mystery deepens.

Where will USC’s head be at kickoff? Still stuck thinking back to Stanford? (Not if Su’a Cravens has anything to say about it.) Or ready to atone? The Trojans responded with a win after all four losses in 2014. Graham’s Sun Devils have been outstanding in the first quarter the past three years, so some early success for the Trojans would be an outstanding sign. Also, USC must avoid the costly turnovers that have boosted the Sun Devils’ fortunes in recent Tempe showdowns.

In my Pac-12 preview, I picked the Sun Devils to drop the Trojans by a touchdown in this one – citing USC’s recent struggles at Arizona State and the physical hangover from playing Stanford. If the Trojans do lose, those two items will likely be issues to discuss after the game. But I also expected the Sun Devils to be stronger through three games. So, while I picked ASU a few weeks ago, I also picked the Trojans to finish the month with three wins in four games. Honestly, I won’t be surprised by any outcome in this one – but I’ll stick with that 3-1 prediction and ride with Kessler, whom I expect to show up in a big way.

USC 38, Arizona State 30

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 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 thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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