As difficult as things have been for Arizona State through its first three games, the Sun Devils' struggles hardly hold a candle to Lane Kiffin's USC Trojans squad.
On Saturday the Trojans will visit Tempe looking to improve to 4-1 on the season, but their record does not begin to tell the story of how the season has developed. USC defeated Hawaii and Boston College in blowout fashion, but a shocking loss to Washington State and a three-point victory against Utah State this Saturday has coach Lane Kiffin on the hot seat.
The Trojans' offense has no semblance of rhythm and their quarterback woes have been well documented. Kiffin was reluctant to choose a starter before facing immense criticism and pressure. Ultimately Kiffin settled on sophomore Cody Kessler but the offense still lacks any sort of ability to strike fear in an opposing defense.
Last season the Trojans handled the Sun Devils with ease in the midst of a trying season and they hope to do so again this year. On the surface, Arizona State appears to be much improved. However the Sun Devils vaunted rushing attack has yet to kick it into gear and special teams has accounted for severe problems that have limited Arizona State in its first three games.
Arizona State appears much more stable and confident than USC at this point in the season. Can USC invade Tempe and send a dagger through the hearts of Sun Devil fans before October hits? Let's meet the Trojans.
The First Look
The Season to Date (3-1, 1-0 in Pac-12)
Unlike most schools that play 12 games, the Trojans have a 13-game regular season schedule because of an NCAA loophole that allows teams to schedule an extra game if they travel to Honolulu to play Hawaii.
The Trojans opened the season in paradise but they looked like they spent more time at the beach than on the practice field when game time rolled around. USC's superior talent level helped it sleepwalk through the first game of the year and return back to the mainland with a 30-13 victory.
Hawaii offered a rude awakening and the next week would prove to be even worse. In the team's first home game of the year, the Washington State Cougars marched into the Coliseum and earned a hard-fought 10-7 victory in a defensive struggle. Both Cody Kessler and Max Wittek saw time at quarterback and neither was remotely effective. The Trojans' longest pass play against the Cougars went for eight yards.
After dropping the first conference game, USC boosters and fans became more vocal in their calls to have Lane Kiffin removed as head coach. The turmoil spread to the program as Marqise Lee admitted the team held a players' only meeting to address the issues at hand.
Something clicked with Lee and the offense as the team returned the following week to rout Boston College 35-7. Though the Eagles don't stack up with the majority of the Pac-12, a win is a win and Cody Kessler showed off improved pocket presence in his first game after being named the official starter.
One step forward led to one step back. The Trojans barely squeaked by the Utah State Aggies this weekend as it was the Aggies' defense that gave the Trojans fits. USC's defense has excelled all season and the 14-points the team surrendered against Utah State is the most it has given up all year. Regardless, 17 points won't cut it in Pac-12 play and the Trojans face a number of question marks heading into their showdown against Arizona State.
Head Coach: Lane Kiffin
At Tennessee (2009): (7-6, 4-4 in SEC)
At USC (20010-2013): (27-14, 17-11 in Pac-12)
USC on Offense
The Trojans might have the most documented offensive deficiencies of any team in the country. USC is held to a higher standard and Lane Kiffin's perceived mismanagement of the offense has Trojan fans ready to riot.
Quarterback Cody Kessler enters this week as the starting quarterback after 46 of 76 passes this season. Kessler's four touchdowns and two interceptions are unimpressive and USC hopes to establish the run early in hopes of opening things up in the play-action and screen game for its quarterback.
The running game is easily the preferred mode of moving the football for this offense as Tre Madden and Justin Davis have shown promise. Both are averaging more than five yards per carry and Madden's 90 carries and 455 yards lead all Pac-12 rushers.
Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor headline one of the Pac-12's premier receiving corps. The talent has been largely wasted so far this season because of the Trojans inability to pass the football. Kiffin will find ways to incorporate Lee into the offense through screen passes, quick slants and gadget plays because Lee is among the most dynamic playmakers in the country. Lee torched the Sun Devil secondary last season so you can bet USC will try a few vertical passes in the early going.
The Trojans' offensive line has size and talent including 6-foot-7 freshman Chad Wheeler who starts at left tackle. The line has consistently provided the running backs with lanes to work with and it will be interesting to see how they target the inside run game this week with Jaxon Hood out due to injury for Arizona State.
Right now the Trojans are averaging 22.2 points per game and 163.5 passing yards per game and those numbers must improve if they want to contend in the Pac-12 South.
USC on Defense
The Trojans boast one of the best defenses in the conference and it has largely flown under the radar because of the drama surrounding the program.
USC is allowing 11 points per game and while much of that is due to playing against inept offenses, the Trojans did keep Washington State and Utah State at bay. The Trojans are allowing 2.2 yards per rush which is the type of stat that will keep any team in a game.
Sophomore defensive end Leonard Williams has been a revelation for USC and his 6.0 tackles for loss make him a player to watch against Arizona State's tackles this weekend. Junior George Uko starts opposite Williams in the Trojans' 4-3 scheme and his tenacious quarterback pressure lends is a tremendous asset for the rest of his defensive teammates.
With talented defensive ends swallowing up offensive linemen, outside linebacker Morgan Breslin has had a few field days already this year and his four sacks are tied for the team lead. Devon Kennard plays the other outside linebacker spot and he has already tallied three sacks on the year.
USC gets after the quarterback which eases the pressure on a talented secondary. True freshman Su'a Cravens is a pleasure to watch at the strong safety spot and Dion Bailey has provided plenty of thrills at the free safety position. The cornerbacks are stout as well and the Trojans have allowed just over 171 passing yards per game.
Lastly, it's impossible to talk about the USC defense and not mention Hayes Pullard's name. The fierce middle linebacker is a sideline-to-sideline run-stopper with a nose for the football. Pullard keys the Trojans' ability to blitz because he can be trusted to fill any void on defense.