Ryan Abraham: The Sun Devils lost their top-2 receivers, four starters off of the offensive line and bring in a new starting quarterback. How has ASU managed to put together the top scoring offense in the conference?
Chris Karmpan: Even though they lost a lot of experience, the Sun Devils returned their top two running backs and are getting bigger and more athletic across the board on offense. The offensive line hasn't taken a step back whatsoever despite replacing four starters. That unit is at least as good as last year, particularly once junior college center A.J. McCollum became the starter a couple weeks ago, moving senior Stephon McCray from center to right guard. There's still some challenges handling speed on the perimeter, especially at right tackle, but the run blocking and protection overall has been pretty good.
All of this has enabled the running back tandem of junior Demario Richard -- a 1,000 yard rusher last year -- and junior Kalen Ballage -- who tied a NCAA record with had eight touchdowns against Texas Tech -- to get into a good flow. It's also made for an easier transition with a new quarterback, sophomore Manny Wilkins. ASU lost two of its top pass catchers from last season, D.J. Foster and Devin Lucien, but is bigger and no less talented at wide receiver. Senior Tim White is one of the top slot receivers and punt returners in the Pac-12, true freshman N'Keal Harry has hit the ground running and been a productive target at the 'X' position, and the tandem of junior Cameron Smith -- who missed last season with a knee injury but was a good starter in 2014 -- and sophomore Jalen Harvey has been solid at the 'Z' position.
Most importantly, first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has been very impressive with scheme implementation and play-calling. ASU's among the national leaders in the red zone, at 100 percent conversions and very high touchdown rate. Lindsey has put his young quarterback in a position to be successful and relied on his run game when needed.
RA: What sort of quarterback is Manny Wilkins?
CK: Wilkins has above average athletic tools as a dual-threat player. He's elusive and has pretty good quickness in the read option game and is a scramble threat. He's hurdled a player in two different games this season in the open field, which is something coaches probably want him to avoid doing. He's put himself in position to take a lot of hits due to his improvisation and that has to be improved upon moving forward. Wilkins has a pretty good arm and gets the ball to his receivers quickly when decisive.
His biggest limitations are his struggles to cycle through progressions and remain comfortable in the pocket. When his first read is open, he's good. When he has to find secondary targets, he's struggled. Even though he's elusive, Wilkins scrambles to run much more than he scrambles to extend plays to throw the ball. He's been a half field quarterback. Getting to backside receivers has been a challenge so one of USC's biggest keys in the game will be to force Wilkins to have to find secondary targets.
Also, Wilkins has been much better in the second half of games as he's settled into games and Lindsey has figured out the defenses. When opponents have really varied their defensive presentation throughout games and kept him uncertain as to the coverage type, it's been unsettling to Wilkins to some degree.
RA: Kalen Ballage had that huge eight touchdown game against Texas Tech, are opponents gearing up to stop him now?
CK: Six of Ballage's touchdowns came on direct snaps that most would call the "Wildcat" package. ASU calls it "Sparky" because the Wildcats are the team's rival in Arizona. This "Sparky" formation has been extremely successful. ASU moves Wilkins to wideout, and has three tight ends in the game including a defensive lineman, 6-foot-5, 280 pound Christian Hill, as an h-back.
Ballage is a bigger back at 6-foot-3 and 228 or so pounds. But he's also arguably the fastest player on the team. So he he has the ability to run hard inside but also race around the edge to the pylon and that's enhanced the difficulty of defending the formation. ASU has yet to throw out of it but presumably can do that as well.
As a running back, Ballage is a pro-style player. He's better on sweeps and outside zone runs in which he can see the hole as he gathers speed and then get his foot in the ground and cut up the field. when he's able to get through the first level with pace, he's quite elusive and fast. He's not as much of a threat running inside as ASU's other back, Richard, and not as good of a receiving threat out of the backfield.
RA: ASU had the worst pass defense in the country last season. What has Todd Graham done to try and get better against opposing quarterbacks?
CK: Through four games this year ASU is again last in passing defense and the only team in the country giving up 400-plus yards per game through the air. But a big contributing factor in that is the Sun Devils have already played against the top two passing offenses in the country, Texas Tech and Cal, and their Air Raid schemes. Those teams also feature first-round NFL Draft candidate quarterbacks.
The Sun Devils probably have better personnel in the secondary this year, with sophomore Kareem Orr likely to be among the top cornerbacks in the Pac-12 before he's done playing at the school, and sophomore field-side safety Armand Perry, is a very solid run and pass defender. ASU's personnel questions have been primarily at boundary-side safety, where junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes earned his first career start last week and was decent, and senior field side cornerback De'Chavon Hayes has the athletic potential to be good, but is still raw and spotty after transitioning from offense last year.
ASU's biggest challenge here is now much man coverage strain it puts its secondary under. It has players on an island more than every other defense in the league and that leads to more big play breakdowns and coverage busts. When the Sun Devils have been great in the secondary they've put together back-to-back 10-win seasons. When they haven't been very good, they've been lit up by the pass.
RA: It appears the Sun Devils are no longer blitzing at their usual extremely high rate. Is that the case and if so, why the change in philosophy?
CK: The last few years saw Graham dial up more six man pressures than any team in the Pac-12 and perhaps in FBS football nationally. He was hyper-aggressive in this regard. His secondary made it work when he had first-round NFL pick Damarious Randall and three other all-league caliber defensive backs. But last year they didn't have that type of talent and were abysmal defending the pass.
Graham's approach was to try to get to the quarterback even more because of his secondary issues but it backfired. This year ASU started out playing very conservative against Northern Arizona and in the first half against Texas Tech, with a lot of Cover 3 and only rushing three or four defenders. But in the second half of that game and also against UTSA, they got more aggressive. But they've picked their spots a little more and mixed it up a little. They've played a little more zone under and over even though it's still primarily a press man coverage defense.
RA: What is you expectation for the type of game we'll see Saturday, and what's your prediction on the score?
CK: There should be a lot fewer points scored in this game than what we've seen from ASU against teams like Cal and Texas Tech. Wilkins is likely to have to get to his secondary targets more given USC's impressive defensive backs, and running the football should be a little harder. Drive sustainment is going to be tougher for the Sun Devils. USC's athletic skill players will test ASU, particularly in the passing game. If the Sun Devils can unsettle Sam Darnold that will be a big boost. I think it will be a close, medium scoring game and turnover margin probably determines this game. ASU has very good special teams but of course USC has one of the best return men in the league, so a big play there could also prove to make a difference if it happens. I think USC will win by a score like 31-27.
RA: What happened against UTSA?
CK: UTSA had a good game plan and ASU wasn't as prepared as it should have been on a short-week with UTSA having a new coaching staff that did some things that were unexpected. ASU didn't run the ball or control the game physically early and Wilkins was uncomfortable with reading a defense that showed a lot of different looks and disguised its coverage. With Tim White not healthy, ASU turned the ball over twice on punts and that was probably the biggest factor. White had to come in and fair catch the ball even though he wasn't able to play receiver. ASU lost the turnover battle 3-1 and gave two short field touchdowns. ASU should have won that game by 3-4 touchdowns but played poorly.