"Games are won in the trenches" is one of those dime-store coaching colloquialisms doled out without much meaning. However, when applied to Saturday's matchup pitting USC against Arizona State, rhetoric commonly applied to front-line play carries particular gravity.
At Arizona State, there is a talented and experienced defensive line that has yet to break loose in the same manner that produced 56 sacks a season ago. Meanwhile, USC is initiating a young group up front offensively while also struggling to establish an identity on that side of the ball.
The unit that finds its rhythm Saturday is most likely to score its team a victory in what could fairly be qualified as a must-win game. An 0-2 hole to open Pac-12 Conference play spells disaster, and that's precisely the reality Saturday's loser faces.
Of the opportunities USC missed in its 17-14 win over Utah State last week, a few notables emanated from an inexperienced offensive line.
Redshirt freshman left tackle Chad Wheeler allowed a sack resulting in a fumble after he was badly beaten at midfield one possession. It was one of nine sacks the Trojan front has given up through four games, which, at 2.25 per outing, ranks USC 103rd nationally.
Conversely, Arizona State has made just three sacks through three games, a departure from last year's prolific output in the opposing backfield.
The Sun Devils recorded 56 sacks a season, and the drop-off thus far into 2013 is by opponent design. All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton has been sandwiched between frequent double-teams, as to be expected.
But where the Sun Devils compensated last year with additional pressure off the edge, opponents have countered by going to the ground.
To wit, Stanford neutralized the Sun Devils' big-play potential with a steady dose of the rush—49 times to be exact, with just 17 pass attempts.
By employing that strategy, the Cardinal didn't just eliminate arguably the Sun Devil defense's greatest asset; Stanford also attacked a problem area for that defense.
USC has become an increasingly run-based offense as the young season's progressed, whereas stopping the run is a point of emphasis Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has addressed multiple times since the offseason.
Graham's initial concerns are somewhat well-founded—Arizona State is allowing nearly 4.7 yards per carry.
Graham said Monday he is happy with the defensive line’s play against Stanford, citing the team’s limiting of long yardage plays like those surrendered to Wisconsin in Week 3. But Arizona State also suffered losses up front that cloud outlook in the Valley of the Sun.
Tackle Jaxon Hood is a likely scratch from Saturday’s lineup after spending the second half against Stanford on crutches. Said Graham during his press conference Monday, Hood is “very doubtful.”
The Sun Devils are also without defensive end Junior Onyeali, a star last season who is out for the year.
Establishing running back Tre Madden early is essential for the Trojans to steal an important road win. Maintaining blocks long enough to force overpursuit from Sun Devil rushers would open holes for the hard-running Madden to break off considerable gains.
The preparation of Graham and his staff has shifted to countering such a strategy.
"We haven't been in a game where anybody has attempted very many passes, and we knew that going in," he said. "That's why we spent so much time working on 22-, 23-personnel power running game."
If Arizona State sheds the young Trojans and grinds down Madden's production, USC will be forced into more passing plays. That could spell trouble for a unit that has struggled with pass protection and that will be paired opposite a line hungry to tee off for the first time this season.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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