The Sun Devils will welcome the Trojans to Tempe this Saturday with both teams hoping to avoid going 0-2 in Pac-12 play.
USC has had a curious season so far but they still remain a program stacked with as much top tier talent as any team in the conference. To help us get a better grasp on what to expect this weekend, we spoke with Evan Budrovich of Conquest Chronicles. Needless to say, the man knows what he's talking about:
Q: Under Clancy Pendergast, USC's new 52 defense seems to be a lot more attack-oriented, much like ASU's. What are some of your observations so far of the new scheme? Any likes or dislikes?
Evan Burdovich: The new defensive scheme has amped up their intensity and tenacity from the first snap of Fall Camp, something that has translated towards a total transformation in philosophy. Thanks to the run-stuffing defensive lineman George Uko, Antwaun Woods and Leonard Williams leading the way, USC's linebackers can flow freely in the hole to limit explosive rushing attacks. Add to the fact that the pass rush - in a new stand up 3-4 role - has given Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin the opportunity to roam free in the backfield in one-on-one situations. The only aspect of the defense that holds some concern is the cornerback play on the deep ball. Due to injuries and an ever-changing rotation of depth, some of USC's lesser cornerbacks have been given increased roles in slot situations and are, in result, getting tested down the sideline. Luckily the Trojans have good ball-hawking safeties that cover well in space, but the corners still present major problems for this defense.
Q: It's probably safe to say the 2013 Trojans aren't the prototypical, high-scoring USC team we've gotten used to over the years. Do you think they're going to be a grind-it-out, smash-mouth team all year? Is this team built to compete in shootouts?
Evan: This current USC team is trying to return to a formula that built great success for Pete Carroll by pounding the football on the ground, playing mistake-free football in the passing game and then get after the quarterback with relentless pressure. Ideally, this team will continue to pound the rock and allow their play action game to flourish in space while also taking a few shots down field each week to Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor. Thanks to outstanding play from their defense, the Trojans can afford to trust all three aspects of their game and thus demand less vertical passing from Cody Kessler and company. It's by no means a complete knack on the offense, instead based on the Trojans biggest strengths on the field.
Q: What's your interpretation of how USC has been using Marqise Lee this season? Do you think the coaching staff will figure out a way to get the ball into his hands more often?
Evan: To be fairly objective, the Trojans have used Marqise Lee in much the same ways they did last season when he took home the Biletnikoff Award. The major difference this time around however is that opposing defenses are beginning to respond by playing close to the line of scrimmage, while also doing an excellent job of rotating coverage his direction. While Marqise is an explosive weapon and has shown some flashes this season of returning to outstanding form, but unfortunately some critical drops have affected his production. USC will continue to give Lee about 7-9 touches with deeper routes over the middle. They will also feed him the rock in quick and easy slant routes out of the backfield by motioning him before the snap to open up space for him to operate.
Q: What have you seen from Cody Kessler so far? What's the scouting report on the young quarterback and what (if any) promising signs has he shown?
Evan: Cody Kessler emerged as the starter after battling the nerves of fighting for the position with Max Wittek, something he clearly admitted slowed with his development and confidence. After two games as the full-time starter, USC's offense has looked much more formidable in the passing game thanks to quick-striking passes and effective routes over the middle in play action. Kessler is limited to an extent, but could certainly develop into a Mark Sanchez-like producer for USC if he continues to make excellent decisions in play-action situations.
Q: From what you've seen from the Trojans, Bruins and Sun Devils in the early part of this season, do you think USC still has a legitimate chance at taking the South?
Evan: USC will certainly have a chance to win the Southern Division because of a combination of two factors in their favor. First and foremost, USC will dodge Top-25 squads Oregon and Washington on the schedule, while UCLA must battle both later in the season. Also, USC hosts UCLA in a classic revenge match up following a rather deflating loss last season at the Rose Bowl. It may sound like a cop out, but the Trojans easier conference slate could level the playing field despite the opening loss to WSU in Pac-12 play.
Q: Finally, what's your prediction for this Saturday's game?
Evan: While the Trojans have traditionally struggled on the road early in Pac-12 play, this group can rest on the laurels of their defense and ground n pound attack to control the time of possession battle all night long. Assuming USC can get the running game going, following the blue print laid by Stanford and Wisconsin, the Trojans can keep the ball out of Taylor Kelly's hands propelling an upset road victory.
Final Score: USC 21, ASU 16