Arizona State vs. USC: Breaking Down Key Questions in Pivotal Pac-12 Matchup

Alex BallentineFeatured ColumnistNovember 10, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 03:  Wide receiver Marquise Lee #9 of the USC Trojans make a three yard touchdown catch over cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu #14 of the Oregon Ducks with five seconds remaining in the game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 3, 2012  in Los Angeles, California. Oregon won 62-51.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

With the Arizona State Sun Devils and the USC Trojans still teetering on the precipice of Pac-12 South contention, their head-to-head matchup is a must-win for both teams.

The Sun Devils are currently in third place in the South division and a full game behind UCLA in the standings. A loss would all but put them out of contention for good, but a win would put them right back in the thick of things. 

The Trojans will look to avoid a potential letdown scenario after losing a high-profile game to Oregon last weekend, 62-51.

The winner still has a shot at the Rose Bowl, the loser will certainly be headed towards a disappointing season. Here are the key questions that will shape the way this game shakes out.


Can Arizona State get back on track?

For those who didn't like USC at the beginning of the season, Arizona State was a trendy pick to win the Pac-12 South in the preseason. 

The Sun Devils have good talent on both sides of the ball, and the arrival of new coach Todd Graham made them a good candidate to have a breakout season. Folks on that bandwagon looked very smart at the beginning of the season. 

Arizona State started the year 5-1, including a 3-0 record in the conference, all by double digits. The only loss was a respectable four-point defeat at the hands of Missouri on the road. 

Then came the tough part of the schedule. 

Taking on Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State in successive fashion, the Sun Devils are now losers of three straight and have gone from 5-1 to 5-4. Since starting 5-1, the defense has been awful, the offense has been less explosive and the Sun Devils seemed to have lost their way.

They'll need to make big adjustments if they want to salvage this season.


Can Monte Kiffin improve this defense?

If the USC defense doesn't improve over the rest of the season, Lane Kiffin is going to have an awkward family situation. The Trojans defense has been so bad, he may need to fire his dad, Monte, from the defensive coordinator position.

The Trojans have just been a mess on defense the last two games. When your offense scores 36 and 51 in back-to-back games, it shouldn't be too hard to win those games. Unfortunately for the Trojans offense, the defense gave up 39 and 62 points respectively, so they're 0-2 in those games.

No one will confuse the talent on this USC defense with the dominant USC defenses from the past, but it shouldn't be this bad.

To be fair, the Ducks can make any defense look bad, but the Trojans gave up over 300 yards on the ground to Kenjon Barner alone. They absolutely have to be better against the Sun Devils to win.

If Monte Kiffin can't change some things up to get this defense going in the right direction, his job could be in jeopardy.


Can the Sun Devils slow down the USC offense?

Fortunately for the Trojans, Arizona State isn't really big on defense either.

In the last three games, all losses, ASU has given up 43, 45 and 36 points. That's way too many to be giving up on an every game basis. 

Although this team has already faced the Ducks, they'll be taking on the most explosive passing game they see all season. Matt Barkley's team may not have the record he envisioned they would have when he decided to come back for another season, but his stats have looked impressive.

Throw in Marqise Lee's dominant season and the fact that Robert Woods is still a great receiver, and it's easy to see how USC's offense can overwhelm anyone when it gets on a roll.

The week it plays the Trojans is not the best week, but the Devils desperately need the defense to turn a corner if they want to pick up the win.

Both teams need the defense to make drastic improvements. Both teams have explosive offenses when given the opportunity. Perhaps the best question is, "Will we see a punt in this game?"