Well Arizona State fans, last week didn't exactly go as planned. As it turns out, that team in Palo Alto is pretty good at football, and the team in Tempe still hasn't found a way to win big games on the road (and Arizona doesn't count, that's not truly a road game). The Sun Devils got spanked at Stanford, and while a lot of fans are trying to find a positive by pointing out the second half comeback, I'll point out that Stanford is notorious for laying off teams when they get a big lead.
Oh well, on to the next one. The next one is of course USC, and the Trojans have their own problems, namely their glaring lack of a competent head coach. Lane Kiffin continues to prove that he was not the brainchild of those great USC offenses with Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. Instead Steve Sarkisian ran the show while Kiffin took some of the credit.
There is no questioning the talent at USC; the team has future NFL stars all over both sides of the ball. The problem is that Kiffin hasn't figured out how to call normal pass plays, and as a result, the Trojans have dynamic talent with deflating numbers. Still, don't sleep on the Trojans in this one. The defense is great and the offense is a sleeping giant.
Matchup of the Week: Pass Rush vs. O-Line
Both teams have great pass rushers, but only one has the statistics to prove it so far. The Trojans can get after a quarterback, but they also haven't played a good team yet. Meanwhile, the Trojans offensive line is a wreck in the passing game, and this could be the matchup where Will Sutton and Carl Bradford are finally turned loose.
Arizona State Pass Rush vs. USC O-Line
Will Sutton and Carl Bradford have been shut out so far, but that has a chance to change this weekend. Chad Wheeler, a redshirt freshman, is inexperienced on the left side, and is also extremely thin for his height (6'7", 290lbs). Kevin Graf, meanwhile, has never lived up to his billing as a 5-star recruit at right tackle. He is a stiff in the passing game. Honestly, he might be better if he just stood still and made the defense go around him. Max Tuerk was recruited as the left tackle of the future and instead is playing guard, where his athleticism has been great in the zone blocking run game that USC runs, but Tuerk doesn't handle the power rush well either.
Here's the trick for the Sun Devils and their pass rushers: USC is most effective when taking shots down field off of the play-action pass. The Trojans are going to be able to run the ball, as Tre Madden has stepped in and been outstanding through four games, averaging over 5 yards per carry. But the Trojans have an obsession with bubble screens too, and this could get the Sun Devil secondary in trouble. The secondary is bound to have a few breakdowns, but the key is how well Sutton, Bradford, Davon Coleman and Marcus Hardison read the play-action on those breakdowns.
Cody Kessler hasn't proved that he can move around in the pocket and extend plays, and he tends to panic when pressured. If he needs two or three seconds for Marqise Lee or Nelson Agholor to work down the field, he's going to get hit, and if Kessler doesn't find a way to take a hit, he's going to turn the ball over too. I expect this to be the game where the Sun Devil defense finally breaks out and has some big takeaways that swing the momentum of the game.
USC Pass Rush vs. Arizona State O-Line
Let's face it; the Arizona State offensive line has been among the team's biggest issues so far. The Sun Devils aren't opening running lanes for Marion Grice and they've been beaten like Mike Tyson's personal punching bag at times in passing situations. USC, meanwhile, has destroyed every quarterback they've played.
The new 3-4 defense that USC implemented is actually more of a 5-2, as Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard play the end positions, but are both bit undersized to put their hand in the ground at the 5 or 7-technique, so they stand up when moved inside and put their hand in the dirt when spread out wide. Forget size though, both are phenomenal pass rushers. Breslin has played his way into first-round consideration and Kennard, who has suffered through an injury-plagued career, is also making huge strides in his senior season. Leonard Williams is the second-best interior pass rusher in the Pac-12, behind Sutton, and George Uko is deceptively quick for his size. Even Antwaun Woods, a massive human being, can overpower the opposing center and get good push inside.
The problem for the Sun Devils is they've had to dumb down their playbook because no receiver has stepped up behind Jaelen Strong. I'll be surprised if we don't see Ellis Jefferson at some point, especially if Kelly is struggling to find another target behind Strong. Kelly won't have time to sit in the pocket, and he doesn't want to scramble around, because this USC front will devour him and force poor throws. The Trojan secondary isn't the most technically sound, but it is the most athletic and talented in the conference, and Kelly having to improvise is bound to lead to turnovers.
So what do the Sun Devils have to do? Get Chris Coyle involved. Take some pressure off of the offensive line. Coyle hasn't been let loose yet in the passing game, but he'll need to be Kelly's safety valve in this one. Arizona State also might want to break out more misdirection and option plays in this game. They need to keep the Trojans guessing, because the repeated iso and power runs, flood and smash pass plays, and screens simply won't work. The offensive line needs help in this one, or it's going to be a long day in Tempe.