USC head coach Lane Kiffin with QB Cody Kessler
USC is taking on Arizona State this Saturday in a game where the Sun Devils are favored by six points.
If you saw any part of Taylor Kelly and company take on Stanford last Saturday, this one probably started to look a lot more exciting.
That's because you saw Todd Graham's team struggle to move the ball. You saw the run game get shutdown by an imposing front seven and you also saw a passing attack limited due to blanketing coverage by the Cardinal secondary.
Guess who else has a pretty good defense?
If you said USC, you either read the title or have been watching defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's unit dominate opponents all season.
The Trojans record says 3-1, and no, it hasn't been pretty. Aside from a 35-7 victory over Boston College, Lane Kiffin's team has played much like the one that lost to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl last season.
But the common denominator in all four games was good defense, and it's the defense that should keep USC in every game this season.
Take the 10-7 loss to the Washington State Cougars for example. Mike Leach's team is averaging 31 points per game, but the Trojans held them to just three, with the other seven coming off an interception return for a touchdown.
In a 17-14 win against Utah State, the defense held the Aggies to more than 26 points below their season average, and quarterback Chuckie Keeton, an excellent dual-threat quarterback, managed just 179 yards through the air.
Disregard the scores for a moment, because what that shows is the Trojans' defense is an elite group showing major improvement from last season.
The front seven is playing arguably as well as Stanford's, and the secondary is filled with future NFL stars such as freshman phenom Su'a Cravens. If Arizona State doesn't come out with its best effort of the year, it's not hard to envision Sparky struggling to score more than 20 points.
But the matter at hand has two parts. The first is looking how the Trojans can stay close, and we've answered that by looking at the defense.
More importantly, how can USC actually win this thing?
For that, we'll have to look toward an offense that has played dreadful football thus far in 2013.
It is averaging just over 22 points per game, and neither its passing yards per game nor rushing yards per game ranks in the top 65. Especially surprising is the fact that wide receiver Marqise Lee has looked human in the team's first four contests.
The first key to ramping up the offense will be getting Lee the ball in space in every way possible. That means swing passes, deep throws, bubble screens and regular routes. Maybe toss in a play where Lee takes it on a reverse and has the option to throw.
However it can be done, Kiffin needs to make sure Lee has the ball because when that happens, USC gets yards in a hurry.
Looking at Stanford, you'll notice the Cardinal scored 34 points against both San Jose State and Army, respectively. Then, David Shaw's team put up 42 on Arizona State, and probably would have tacked on a few more had the starters remained in the game.
What this means is that while the Sun Devils boast talent on defense, especially in the front seven, the unit may be getting more credit than it deserves. It gave up 30 points in a win over Wisconsin the week before.
This could be the game that Tre Madden really explodes on to the national scene. The sophomore is a converted linebacker averaging more than five yards per carry. With the success that Stanford had running Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson up the middle, it appears that Arizona State is susceptible to the power run game.
In Tre Madden, USC has a tool it can use to control the clock and move the ball with physicality. But at that point, the Sun Devils are likely going to stuff the box and force USC to throw the ball with Cody Kessler.
And therein lies the biggest issue with USC thus far; it can't throw the ball, which means it can't open up the defense and ultimately, it isn't putting enough points on the board.
Kiffin must set up easy throws from Kessler to Lee at the beginning of the game to try to get his quarterback into a rhythm.
What is the most important factor for USC to upset Arizona State?
The sophomore from Bakersfield, CA has just four touchdown passes and two interceptions on the year. But since being named the starter in advance of the Boston College game, Kessler has thrown for 401 yards with three touchdowns and zero picks.
Arizona State will bring more to the table than any opponent thus far, but Kessler has plenty of weapons around him to help move the football. It's a matter of making sure he's comfortable, because a few hard hits to start the game, followed by a bevy of incompletions, is the fastest way toward a loss.
This isn't a game to bet on the Trojans, because Arizona State is at home, and likely hungry following the loss to the Cardinal.
But USC can definitely win, and if it does, it will be due to solid defense, the re-emergence of Lee at receiver and the consistently of Kessler in the first few drives.
It's a tall order, but that's what must be done if USC is to pull the upset and hand Arizona State its second-straight conference loss.