The Arizona State Sun Devils are eleven games into a grueling thirteen game schedule. They've suffered successive losses and are heading into game number twelve with squad ground down by attrition. Even Sparky, their mascot, is finding it near impossible to bring his normal high energy "pep" in the final dog days of November.
Head Coach Dirk Koetter has done a marvelous job this season, but even he can see the writing on the wall... "A case could be made that we're physically tired, that we're mentally tired. I've heard that theory... I think on Saturdays you have to show up and you have to compete."
Koetter's right - a team must show up and compete, that is if you have enough players remaining to even form a team. Perhaps things aren't that bleak, but injury has hit the Sun Devils hard. In the last three games, ASU has lost its leading rusher, leading tackler and one of its best defensive lineman. Couple the injuries from earlier in the year with the prospect of facing their toughest opponent at the end of the longest season in school history and it's no wonder wins are being converted to losses. Even the fans, who once delighted in getting to watch their team play thirteen even fourteen times if the Sun Devils can make a bowl, are growing weary. Normally a raucous, packed house, Sun Devil Stadium is seeing more and more empty seats and waning enthusiasm. The grind is evident everywhere you look. "Yawn," even I am getting tired just thinking about it.
It's not just injury or fatigue that plagues the Sun Devils. Three weeks ago, heading into a showdown with Washington State, ASU was tied for first in the Pac and in control of its Rosebowl destiny. But it was Washington State, not Arizona State, that took the ball and ran with it. The Cougars smacked ASU so hard, scoring 44 points on the road to victory, that the Sun Devils haven't seen straight since. In their last two matchups ASU has given up a total of 99 points and nearly 800 yards. No, it's not looking pretty for Koetter and his men.
On the flip side to that dreary scenario are the USC Trojans. Scoring more than 40 points in three games this year and avergaing over 420 yards per game, you couldn't paint a bright picture of the Cardinal and Gold. In fact, save for one missed kick and a poor overtime performance, the boys of Troy have played inspired ball. That said, the Trojans have been bit by the injury bug, as well. They lost defensive super star Shaun Cody for the season and just this last week suffered another major hit when Lenny Vandermade went down with torn tendons in his bicep. Vandermade is probably SC's best offensive lineman and will be sorely missed, but like they have all year, this Trojan team will adjust and find a way to win. Hobbled All-American Troy Polamalu offers the perfect example for how this team has gotten it done through the 2002 season - you wrap what hurts, take your shot and go out and play, probably better than anybody else healthy could. That is the Spirit of Troy and will be the energy that carries USC through their final games. USC's hopes for the Rosebowl or a BCS bid may be slim, but the shot at a ten win season and major bowl invitation are not. That's what will drive the Trojans to victory. That and arguably the best quarterback in the nation. If no one else steps up, Carson Palmer's arm and execution will carry this team.
Ironically, ASU's quarterback Andrew Walter is having a Heisman type year himself. Already surpassing legendary Danny White's single season passing record, Walter has tossed the rock for more than 400 yards in four games this year. He threw for a record 536 yards against the Oregon Ducks, handing them their first home loss in nearly two seasons. Another point to mention, going into Saturday's matchup, is that ASU is the only team in the Pac that USC does not have a winning record against. The series is tied at 9-9 and that is something the Trojans see the need to address. The Sun Devils, depleted and exhausted, however will not lay down for the SC victory. They've come too far and are just one win away from bowl eligibility to let it all slip away. Because of that, look for Dirk Koetter and Company to pull out all the stops in trying to gather a victory over the Trojans.
The formula for success for ASU, thus far has been the outstanding play of Walter, their near legendary defensive end, Terrell Suggs, above average running from Candidate and Williams, but most importantly the turnovers created by their defense. Twelve players on ASU's defensive squad have a pick and the total is holding at 19. The Sun Devils have gotten rich off those turnovers and most recently suffered from them as well.
In looking at common opponents between SC and ASU, the Sun Devils lost big to WSU, a team SC had beaten until..., fought hard and won against Oregon, a team SC manhandled and then most recently gave up 55 points to Cal, who gave SC fits early but then got steamrolled by the Trojans (despite the final score). ASU's game against Cal, being their most recent loss, is a bit misleading. Going into the fourth quarter, the score was tied 38-38 and seven of Cal's scores came off of ASU turnovers or mistakes. No team is going to blunder about as much as ASU did and come up with a victory. It was that fourth quarter against Cal, 17 unanswered points, that was the death knell to the Sun Devil season. Kind of a last gasp that leads to a death twitch that is unmistakeable when witnessed. The plug's been pulled on Sparky and they're trip to LA will be nothing more than a chance to get out of the desert.
For ASU to survive this contest, they're going to have to sell their souls their own Sun Devil. Walter has been solid in his campaign but he hasn't gone up against an SC defense that seems to hit harder and run faster as the year goes on. ASU talks of Suggs and he is great, but how might their own qb fare going up against an athlete like Terrell? Well, SC has it's own version in Keneche Udeze. And what of their receiver, MacDonald? How short might those arms become going over the middle with an All-American in wait? No, ASU has played some solid football, but they haven't played anybody, in conference or out, who is as devastating as the Trojans. This is not a Trojan team that has to win by luck or even turnover. It is a team that makes simple adjustments, lines up and takes it from you. ASU does not have enough left in them to put up the fight required to survive this bout. Sure, Walter will get his yards, although nothing like he's used to and he won't score. SC might allow 280 to 300 in the middle of the field, but touchdowns will be hard to come by. Just ask Stanford. Maybe Williams will get a decent rushing average but he won't crack 100 and will be lucky to get to 75. Without Candidate to share the load, it's going to be tough sledding. And to Suggs... a sack, maybe one but Carson will roll out to deliver hsi passes. And thanks to a weakened secondary with the loss giving a freshman the first start of his college career, SC's should be open early and often. There was more worry that the Trojans might let down for the Stanford game, then there is the concern that this ASU team, in their current state, can actually play with SC. The lines are approaching similar points. SC is currently favored by 15 and rising. Against Stanford, it was 20. The oddsmakers know what they're talking about. And unless ASU gets a lucky bounce or two, it's all but over. You can put a fork in ‘em, the Sun Devils are done.
Final score: USC 52 ASU 27