USC Trojans vs. Arizona State Sun Devils Complete Game Preview
USC leaves the safety of the Coliseum this week and travels to Tempe, Ariz., to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils. The Trojans are 3-1 as they enter their second tilt with a conference opponent and have looked impressive in spurts.
Both USC and the Sun Devils are looking to notch their first conference win this season: USC, having been embarrassed at home by the Washington State Cougars, and ASU, having just lost 42-28 to Stanford.
For Arizona State, the football gods look down favorably on them: USC has dropped six of its 10 losses to Sparky in Tempe, including its most recent loss in 2011. Then again, history finds itself aligned with the Trojans as well: USC leads the series all time 18-10 (not including a win vacated with the sanctions) and sustained an 11-game win streak against ASU until 2011.
Both teams need a win, but alas, only one can do so.
But first, here are the vitals for game day:
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. PT
Radio: 710 ESPN
Spread: ASU (-6), per Vegas Insider
USC Keys to Victory
The Trojans really only need to do one thing to beat the Sun Devils on Saturday: Be consistent.
We know the defense will deliver on that front, but the offense is a different story entirely. Things have been largely up and down for this bunch all season; against Boston College it looked like a well-oiled machine, but against Utah State last week, it was hot and cold throughout much of the afternoon.
After coming out and establishing the run early, USC all but abandoned it entirely in the fourth quarter. The Trojans converted none of their eight third-down attempts of the second half and sputtered to the win largely because of the defensive effort. The offense's inconsistency is groan-inducing, and Arizona State is not a team to be taken lightly.
If USC is to win, it needs to bring its A-game and actually use it on both sides of the ball.
We have seen Tre Madden punch defenses in the mouth and grind for extra yards. We have see Marqise Lee and the bevy of wide receivers catch the deep ball. We have seen the tight ends show they are good for more than just blocking.
Meanwhile, the defense is allowing just 230 total yards a game and just 59 on average on the ground. It averages four sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss each game. It hasn’t surrendered a point yet in the first quarter, and its first team gave up its first touchdown on the season last week, against Utah State.
Now is the time for the Trojans to show all of that skill, at the same time.
Arizona State Keys to Victory
ASU has the advantage over USC in that it is not only hosting this matchup, but it has the more composed team. For the Sun Devils to strike another blow to the Trojans, they need only to rattle USC enough to make it insecure in its abilities to execute.
USC is still defining itself, and doing so under the lights and in front of the hostile crowd in Sun Devil Stadium is less than ideal.
If the Sun Devils can contain wide receiver Marqise Lee—which has been a lot easier so far this season than many expected—USC's Cody Kessler is going to have a hard time getting the passing game going on Saturday night. More importantly, though, the Sun Devils will need to neutralize Tre Madden, the workhorse that powers USC's ground game.
We can expect USC to want to get the running game going from the opening whistle, and if ASU can nip it in the bud early, it's going to be a long, long night in Tempe.
USC Players to Watch
This is Kessler's first true road start, and the offense's ability to succeed begins and ends with his confidence. Through four games we have seen his accuracy improve, and this will be his first true test of what kind of quarterback his is.
Against Utah State, we saw him step up in the pocket and deliver dime passes, only to take huge hits shortly thereafter. Each time, he got back up and did it again. Against ASU's defensive line—which features beasts like Will Sutton—that kind of poise will be vital.
If Kessler can lead USC to a victory at Tempe, we will know that he is ready to take the training wheels off and to show us that he is primed to shine.
USC Offensive Line
USC's O-line has been inconsistent throughout the first four games of the season, and that is the exact opposite of what it can afford to be against Arizona State. To be sure, the run blocking has often been great, but the pass protection has been so porous at times, it's a small feat Kessler has even had time to the get the ball out.
Last week, its lackluster efforts saw Kessler get sacked three times and yielded a fumble. That kind of mediocrity will not serve the Trojans well against ASU. For the Trojans to have a good night next Saturday, the offensive line needs to do its part to give the playmakers time to make the offense work.
Arizona State Players to Watch
Kelly has already thrown for over 1,000 yards this season, but it hasn't been pretty: He's completing 59 percent of his passes, and this week he goes up against a USC defense that is just daring him to challenge it. He's been sacked five times already in September, and the Trojan defense has developed a penchant for making opposing quarterbacks taste turf.
For Kelly to see his Sun Devils get the win, he will not only have to stay on his feet, but also have to show that he can get around USC's oppressive defense.
When you consider that USC leads the nation in red-zone defense, is second in tackles for loss, third in rushing defense, fourth in total defense and sacks, 11th in scoring defense and 12th in pass efficiency defense, this task is much easier said than done.
The 2012 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year is looking to retain that title in 2013, and so far, he's off to a shaky start. He has just nine tackles so far this season, and his pass rush that was so menacing last year has been surprisingly M.I.A. this year.
Sutton will be huge for ASU in terms of keeping Cody Kessler uncomfortable all night, but the jury is still out on whether we will even see that happen.
What They Are Saying
ASU linebacker Carl Bradford on USC, per Tim Ring of KTVK-TV:
I just want to kill them. Last year I showed my hate towards them. I want to bring that out this game again.
The next two games are crucial ones for the fate of the USC football program. On Saturday, the Trojans take on Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz., a place where they were beaten 43-22 two years ago by a Sun Devil team that finished 6-7 that season. After a bye week, the team returns to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to face an Arizona squad that derailed USC’s 2012 season with a 39-36 upset win. The loss sent the Trojans into a woeful 1-5 stretch that turned last season from a disappointment into a disaster.
The revenge factor in these games notwithstanding, both are absolute must-wins for USC head coach Lane Kiffin and his team.
Fox Sports' Rahshaun Haylock on USC's passing game woes:
The sky isn't falling. But it is certainly raining on the USC passing game. A year ago around this time, USC would have salivated at the thought of opposing defenses trying to cover its receivers one-on-one. Even heading into this season, it would have likely been the same deal. Currently, that salivating has turned into unsuccessful attempts at cracking the riddle.
USC wins 34-14
If USC's defense weren't playing lights out the way it is, this game would surely look like a loss for the Trojans. Since it is, however, USC stands a good chance of emerging from this tilt as the victor. It has the talent, and the defense will surely do its part to keep the Sun Devils out of the end zone.
For USC head coach Lane Kiffin to feel the seat under him cool down a bit, he needs to call a good offensive game plan that puts the Trojans in place to succeed. If that happens—if USC can play ASU like it played Boston College—Kiffin's job will be just a little bit more secure.
Everything needs to go right for USC to win this game, and the way things have shaped up so far, there's not much to suggest that it will. But the fact that this team has shown glimpses of what it can be when all cylinders are working at the same time gives reason to believe that this week could be the week it gets it done.
When the lights go out in Tempe, USC will have secured its first Pac-12 victory, and with it, the team will be able to breath a little easier knowing it will be 4-1 going into its bye week the following weekend.