Arizona State and USC both expect to win the Pac-12 South. Yet only one team's chances will take a significant blow after Saturday's game. Despite the season only being four weeks in, the must-win attitude is already on display for the Sun Devils.
"This is a big game, I haven't dodged that with our kids at all," Todd Graham said. "Every game in the Pac-12 is a must win, and especially this one."
The Trojans offense hasn't been up to par, but the stellar defensive play is picking up the slack. USC has surrendered only 11 points per contest, 11th best in the country.
Over the offseason, Lane Kiffin parted ways with his father and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and replaced him with Clancy Pendergast. Pendergast believed the 52 defensive scheme would help the unit improve and the decision is paying off.
Graham is well aware of USC's early season success on defense and continues to harp on cutting down the turnovers.
"We can't lose possessions and turnover ratio is going to be big," Graham said. "We lost five possessions last week. Whether it be dropped balls or whether it be kicking the ball into the line. We just can't have those type of things happen."
As for special teams, the mid-week adjustments on the punt blocking have gone smoothly. Graham was more concerned about the actual punts, whether it be Dom Vizzare or Matt Haack.
But what about Marqise Lee?
Regardless of USC quarterback Cody Kessler's growing pains, the weapons around him can expedite the learning curve. The Trojans come in averaging a pedestrian 22.3 points per game against a relatively soft schedule, yet the numbers are slightly deceiving.
"They have the best wide receiver in America (Marqise Lee). And then [Nelson] Agholor is probably top-five," Graham said. "They are very real lethal and it's jut been an execution deal. They are very capable."
Not surprisingly, it's Lee who has particularly caught Graham's eye.
"the guy can catch a short pass and take it 90. He can out run you on the vertical pass. Catch an intermediate pass, yards after catch. He's dynamic."
ASU cornerback Osahon Irabor will be assigned to limiting the damage against Lee. The challenge will be tough, but Graham is confident in Irabor's abilities.
"I think Irabor is the best cornerback that I have ever coached," Graham said. "He's playing top level right now. Against the run, against the pass. [Irabor] will be matched up on [Lee] a lot."
Throughout practice, Graham praises the progress from linebacker Salamo Fiso and safety Laiu Moeakiola. Fiso will be making his debut in the starting lineup Saturday. Meanwhile, Laiu has been going with the starters since the Game 1 and that won't be changing anytime soon.
"It's hard to be a starting free safety as a freshman," Graham said. "And then a redshirt freshman (Fiso) coming in and earning a starting job. It speaks volumes about those two kids. I'm excited about them and their future and we'll see big games out of both of those guys."
Other practice notes
- Freshman All-American defensive tackle, Jaxon Hood, donned the green jersey non-contact and wasn't participating in any team drills during the medias brief availability.
- The running game hasn't be as effective as last year, but Graham said the quality of opponents have made it difficult. "We're playing against really, really good people. We had a lot of mental errors up from and it had a lot to do with Stanford. We have to establish the run."
- Projected starting safety, Marcus Ball, is still "a couple weeks" away from playing.
- When questioned if he's worried about the three blocked punts, Graham answered the question with a question and asked my opinion. I responded with: "Concerned not worried." Graham replied: "There you go, I'm concerned. I'm just curious how you'd answer."