University of Southern California (3-1, 0-1 in Pac-12) at Arizona State (2-1, 0-1 in Pac-12)
Kickoff: 7:30 P.M. MST/10:30 P.M. EST
Location: Sun Devil Stadium
Point Spread: Arizona State (-4)
TV: ESPN 2 (Dave Flemming, Mike Bellotti, Allison Williams)
Radio: 92.3 KTAR FM (Tim Healey, Jeff Van Raaphorst, Doug Franz)
Weather Forecast: 86 degrees at kickoff
What to Wear: It's a #MaroonMonsoon so break out your maroon garb this week.
Series History: USC leads the all-time series against Arizona State with a record of 19-10. The Sun Devils won the last time the teams played in Tempe (43-22 in 2011) but the Trojans have won 11 of the past 12 matchups. Last season, the Trojans handled the Sun Devils with ease in a 38-17 victory at the Coliseum.
USC's Season to Date: The Trojans are one of the most talked about teams in the country right now and it's not for great reasons. A 3-1 record isn't anything to overlook, but the Trojans haven't exactly racked up style points in their three wins. USC opened the season with a less than stellar 30-13 victory over Hawaii and returned home hoping to improve to 2-0 against Washington State. Instead, the Trojans suffered a humiliating 10-7 loss in what Steven Spielberg told reporters was his favorite disaster movie of all-time.
With critics calling for head coach Lane Kiffin to lose his job, Kiffin decided to name Cody Kessler the Trojans starting quarterback heading into their week three contest against Boston College. The move paid dividends and Kessler led USC to a 35-7 win. Last week, the Trojans suffered another scare as they barely outlasted Utah State in a 17-14 final.
The Trojans have one of the best defenses in the country and have yet to allow more than 14 points in a game. Regardless, the offense has been so poor that USC continues to face national scrutiny and will do so until it can string together more consistent performances.
Arizona State on offense: The Sun Devil offense is averaging 38.3 points per game and putting up nearly 470 yards of offense per contest, but something's missing. Through the first three games, Arizona State has yet to establish a dynamic rushing attack like it had last season.
In 2012, the Sun Devils rushed for 205 yards per game. The 2013 team has seen that number plummet to just 108 yards per game which ranks in the bottom 20 of all FBS teams. The stats indicate a disturbing trend and Arizona State left tackle Evan Finkenberg attributes that to the team's inability to rush the ball early in games.
"We just have to establish the run," Finkenberg said. "When you establish the run early, it makes the game easier and our passing game really opens up."
The Sun Devils face a tough task this week in a USC Trojans squad that is holding opponents to just 59.3 yards per game on the ground. The Trojans' own the nation's third best rushing defense and much of their success is a result of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's 3-4 scheme. Like Stanford, the Trojans vary their blitz packages and have great outside linebackers who hold the edge well.
"They do a lot of different multiple fronts, they move their line a lot, they've got some physical guys and they're really athletic up front," Finkenberg said.
The Trojans defensive statistics from this season are similar to those that the Sun Devils put up last year in Todd Graham's first go-around as head coach. USC is averaging 9.5 tackles for loss per game and 4.0 sacks per game which matches Arizona State's sack average from last season.
Finkenberg says the Sun Devils have to hone in on USC's edge players and pick up on the tendencies the Trojans have shown through their first four games. The entire offense has devoted time to picking apart the 3-4 defense from a schematic standpoint to maximize the opportunities it will have this week.
"We've been going over a lot of film work, extra film work as a group, making sure we have all the different calls down for us and making sure we ID guys," Finkenberg said.
QB Taylor Kelly vs. FS Dion Bailey and SS Su'a Cravens: If Arizona State is still putting up gaudy offensive numbers and the running game has stalled, where's the production coming from? Quarterback Taylor Kelly has slowly adjusted to taking on an increased role in the offense and he'll be called upon yet again this week. Kelly set a career high with 352 yards against Wisconsin and surpassed that with a 367-yard outing against Stanford.
Kelly will face intense pressure from the USC defense and it's important that he keeps his eyes downfield. Bailey and Cravens are two of the most athletic safeties Kelly will see so if the heat is on, Kelly needs to be smart in his attacks downfield. Expect Chris Coyle, Marion Grice and D.J. Foster to get more looks this week because Bailey and Cravens should do a better job at corralling Jaelen Strong over the top.
RG Vi Teofilo and RT Tyler Sulka vs. DE George Uko and OLB Morgan Breslin: On paper, the Sun Devils are at a severe disadvantage on the line. Uko and Breslin have each tallied four sacks thus far and the pair has combined for 10 tackles for loss. Evan Finkenberg and Jamil Douglas are better prepared to handle the speed of Uko and Breslin, so look for Clancy Pendergast to put the pair on the left side of the field and run a few different stunts to keep Arizona State's inexperienced offensive line guessing.
Arizona State on defense: When the Sun Devils traveled to the Coliseum last season, they met their match in USC wide receiver Marqise Lee who diced up the Arizona State defense in a variety of ways. Lee caught screen passes, go routes, and everything in between as he torched the Sun Devils for 10 receptions and 161 yards.
Lee returns to the Trojans this season but he's without his partner in crime. Quarterback Matt Barkley moved on to the NFL and USC's quarterback woes have become national story lines. Cody Kessler won the job over Max Wittek after two underwhelming outings and USC's passing offense ranks 108th nationally.
After beginning the season as a Heisman contender, Lee simply hopes he'll have someone who can get him the football each week. Against the Sun Devils, expect Lane Kiffin's offense to incorporate Lee on quick screens and on speed sweeps which the Sun Devils have had difficulty stopping this season.
Arizona State will have to rely on cornerback Robert Nelson and safety Laiu Moeakiola to shut Lee down this week because USC hopes to send Lee to the wide side of the field so he can operate in space. The Sun Devils are concerned about Lee, but their worst fears are internal this week.
Nose tackle Jaxon Hood suffered a hamstring injury against Stanford so defensive end Gannon Conway will shift inside to help stop the run. Conway only weighs about 280 pounds yet Todd Graham still believes Conway gives the team the best opportunity to handle the USC rushing attack.
"It's virtually the same position as far as when I'm in the seven technique," Conway said. "Now I'm on the guard and I'm getting some of the same blocks, but I just have to be aware that there's a little bit heavier guys in there."
Conway is undersized for a tackle, but the Sun Devils would rather see him play inside than have junior college transfer Marcus Hardison replace Hood. Hardison was blown off the ball in his short spurt of playing time against Wisconsin so he'll kick out and contend for playing time at the defensive end spot this week.
Hardison has developed his skills as a defensive tackle this fall and he'll now be asked to take reps with Davon Coleman at defensive end. Coleman lost his starting end job to Conway in the offseason and he'll find himself back in the lineup this week with Conway's move inside.
The injury bug is affecting the Sun Devils in a number of ways and Conway believes it will test the team's character and ultimately prove its depth.
"Everyone's banged up but that comes with football," Conway said. "People have to step up and I'm really trying to do my job and I really have to prepare mentally for what they're going to do."
USC has the benefit of watching the film of how Stanford adjusted to Arizona State's personnel changes from last week. The Sun Devils asked senior Jake Sheffield and sophomore Mo Latu to handle Hood's nose tackle duties and the Cardinal responded by dialing up inside run plays. Latu handled the role far better than Sheffield, but with his weight issues, Graham sees him as a 10-to-15 snap per game player.
Can the Trojans capitalize on the lack of defensive continuity? The answer to that question will determine how the game plays out. If USC hits its stride in the running game and can hit Marqise Lee on a few key occasions, the Trojans' defense is strong enough to keep them in the game all night long.
WR Marqise Lee vs. Everybody: It doesn't make sense to put the onus of stopping Lee on just one player. After all, no Sun Devil defenders had a prayer of stopping him last year. It's going to take a group effort from Alden Darby down to Will Sutton to keep Lee at bay.
USC is creative in their use of Lee. Todd Graham called the junior the best wide receiver in college football last season so you can bet he'll have some special packages in place to stop Lee from getting the ball in space. In the end, it's going to come down to how well Arizona State can keep Lee between the hashmarks when he starts with the football behind the line of scrimmage. Lee won't have as many opportunities downfield, so stopping him before he gets going is the new priority.
DE Davon Coleman vs. LT Chad Wheeler: Against pass rushes that don't compare to the firepower the Sun Devils will bring, the Trojans have surrendered nine sacks in four games. Wheeler is a true freshman and a player the Trojans are very high on, but he lacks experience and should be a target for the Sun Devil pass rush.
Coleman will see more playing time this week as a result of Jaxon Hood's injury. The Sun Devil offensive linemen had nightmares about Coleman's spin move in fall camp, so look for him to break it out against Wheeler and put pressure on quarterback Cody Kessler. Furthermore, if Coleman can hold his own against Wheeler in the running game, the Sun Devils will have a better shot at forcing the Trojans to run in Will Sutton's direction.
The Final Breakdown
Through three games, we still don't know as much as we would like about Arizona State. Is this Sun Devil team a legitimate contender with UCLA in the Pac-12 South, or will it be duking things out with Arizona for a spot in the top half of the division come season's end. Saturday night will go a long ways in telling us exactly what this Sun Devil team is made of.
If Arizona State can put points on the board against USC, we'll know this offense is for real. If the Sun Devils' run defense struggles, we'll know that Arizona State has a major issue it needs to clean up if it wants to compete with Notre Dame and Washington.
This week comes down to coaching. Arizona State should not have a problem defeating USC because it has more offensive weapons and its defense is strong enough to withstand a mediocre Trojans offense. In-game adjustments from Mike Norvell are going to be crucial because USC's defense is aimed at taking advantage of poor decision-making. Look for the Sun Devils to turn back the clock to the way they operated their offense last season as a short passing game and a great pass rush leads Arizona State to a victory.
Prediction: Arizona State 24, USC 14