The Arizona State football schedule contains plenty of marquee games but hosting USC could end being the most important contest. Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Stanford may be the considered the most prominent national battles, yet Pac-12 South clashes still remain the priority.
Both teams head into Saturday's showdown at 0-1 in conference. Without a doubt, starting 0-2 would be devastating for each team's Pac-12 Championship hopes. Luckily, out here in the valley of the sun, rooting against Los Angeles-based teams is second nature.
The ASU-USC matchup presents contrasting strengths; the Sun Devils specialize at putting up 30 plus points while the Trojans take pride in their lock-down defense.
Todd Graham expects perfection in every facet of the game. If perfection isn't attainable, accomplishing the three keys should be enough to get the win. And remember fans, wear maroon to be part of the monsoon!
ASU's Three Keys to Victory
1. Jump out to an early lead
Despite the Sun Devils second half surge against Stanford, the comeback effort fell significantly short because of the 29-0 deficit at halftime. Heading into the game against USC, the emphasis will be on starting fast and keeping the pedal to the metal. Lane Kiffin's offense can't beat opponents through the air with quarterback Cody Kessler struggling early on.
USC starting running back, Tre Madden, has masked Kessler's deficiencies by accumulating 455 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Madden ranks eighth in the country in rushing yards, in spite of defenses stacking the box to stop him. So if ASU accomplishes its goal of starting out fast, the Trojans will be forced out of their ground-and-pound comfort zone with Madden.
Up front, the USC offensive lineman are more run-oriented bunch. When asked to pass protect, the Sun Devils have an obvious advantage with Will Sutton and company. Because of Kessler's lack of confidence and inconsistent pass blocking, almost every pass attempt could be a legitimate turnover opportunity.
Forcing teams to be one dimensional allows the defense to pin their ears back and blitz. Paul Randolph's defense thrives in those situations. If the Sun Devils and Taylor Kelly come out firing on all cylinders, USC may panic and scratch their game plan.
2. Balance on offense
In spite of the dropped passes, Kelly is on pace to throw for over 4,000 yards. As fun as that sounds, that might not actually be good news. To overcome USC's talented defense, the importance of maintaining offensive balance can't be overstated. Marion Grice continues to run hard and fall forward for small gains. Now it's time for the offensive line to give him some room to turn two-yard plays into eight-yard bursts.
Pushing back the highly-touted Trojans front seven won't be easy. Kelly attempted 55 attempts against Stanford, while Grice only got 17 running chances. The scoreboard obviously factored in heavily, but abandoning Grice on the ground won't work against USC.
What's one way to get the better of USC's stacked defense? Keep them guessing and unsure of what's coming next. The Sun Devils passing game isn't as good without Grice at his best and vice versa. And if the running game works, the play-action passing attack will have linebackers biting. That means more room for Chris Coyle and D.J. Foster to get open over the middle.
Grice is probably slated for 22-25 carries at this point. But he won't see those touches if he isn't surpassing 3.5 yards per carry. Against Wisconsin, Grice put up 84 yards on 22 carries with one rushing touchdown. That type of game will help ASU's offense play up to its potential even if it doesn't exactly make headlines.
3. No self-inflicted wounds
On paper, ASU's roster and home field advantage seems superior to what the Trojans have to offer (Vegas projects the Sun Devils to be 6.5-point favorites). There isn't any need to play risky, sticking to the fundamentals should be plenty. But the games aren't played on paper because crazy stuff happens, like three blocked punts.
Between Kelly's two interceptions, three blocked punts and the missed field goals, too many points are being left on the field. If the Trojans get easy opportunities and short fields, they could suddenly become the favorites. The field position battle is already skewed in USC's favor since ASU's punting game with Dom Vizzare and Matt Haack is among the worst in college football.
In Todd Graham's opening season, the turnover ratio tended to consistently side with the Sun Devils. In 2013, the same can't be said. The careless mistakes are putting themselves in precarious situations. ASU must get back to controlling the turnover battle, or at least cut down on their self-inflicted wounds.
But what do you think we be the difference Saturday? Tell us in the comments below.