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Arizona State vs. USC: Game Preview, Key Match-Ups, Prediction and More

Everything you need to know for ASU's key Pac-12 battle against the USC Trojans is right here.

Norm Hall

Arizona State (5-4, 3-3) at #21 USC (6-1, 4-3)

Kickoff: 1:00 p.m. MST / 3:00 p.m. EST

Location: Los Angeles Coliseum

Point Spread: USC by 9

TV / Radio: Pac-12 Network / 620 AM

Weather Forecast: Low 60s, partly cloudy

Series History: USC leads the all-time series 18-10, a figure bolstered by USC's 11-game winning streak that was snapped last year thanks to the Sun Devils' 43-22 win last season in Sun Devil Stadium.

USC's Last Game: Normally, when your offense gains 615 yards and 51 points, victory is assured. That is, unless you play Oregon. Last week's Arena League-style affair was a ridiculous display of offensive firepower, and the Trojan defense couldn't make the needed stops to get a win. Their collapse overshadowed a great game by the usual suspects of the Trojan offense, who put up 615 yards and 51 points of their own.

Team Match-Up Advantages

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ASU on Offense: The Oregon offense is in a category all by themselves, but last Saturday they showed that USC's 4-3 defense is vulnerable. While their no Ducks, the Sun Devils have some players that could be in line for a big game.

They will need to, as ASU will need to score into at least the 30s to have a chance. That effort will start with quarterback Taylor Kelly. Last Saturday, the Oregon State pass rush rattled the sophomore, and as a result, his accuracy and mechanics suffered, resulting in the ASU offense grinding to a halt. Kelly has shown the ability to bounce back this season, and if he can, he should be able to led the team on several scoring drives.

The battle up front will greatly influence Kelly's performance. The Trojans don't blitz often, leaving the bulk of the rush to the line, and they do a great job. Defensive ends Morgan Breslin (eight sacks) and Wes Horton (four) and tackles Leonard Williams (5.5) and George Uko (three) will be a load for the ASU offensive line to handle. The Trojans favor a lighter, more athletic line (average weight of the starters: 261 pounds), so the Sun Devils may run the ball more as a result.

The Sun Devils will need to feed their two best playmakers, running backs D.J. Foster and Marion Grice, much more than they did against Oregon State. Whether it's on the ground or through the air, that duo has proven to be the most effective, and should be able to make plays against the Trojan defense. USC's linebackers, led by Dion Bailey, are very athletic and can cover a lot of ground, so this will be a key match-up to follow.

Kelly should be passing frequently to Foster and Grice for two reasons. One, they are the team's most effective pass catchers, and secondly, because ASU's wide receivers have regressed once again. They repeatedly were unable to get open downfield against the Beavers, catching just nine passes for just 73 yards. Rashad Ross, Kevin Ozier and Jamal Miles will need to be much better to stretch the field to open things up for Foster and Grice. That will be easier said than done against a talented USC secondary that features All-Pac-12 performers in cornerback Nickell Robey and free safety T.J. McDonald.

One X-factor could be tight end Chris Coyle, who has been steady in the receptions department, but hasn't topped 60 yards receiving in any of the last five games. He'll see a lot of strong safety Jawanza Starling, who can deliver big hits and has improved in coverage.

Key Match-Ups:

  • RB D.J. Foster vs. LB Dion Bailey: Foster was inexplicably a non-factor against Oregon State, with just seven touches. That figures to be rectified against USC, and with Foster hopefully returning to his dynamic self, he'll likely see a lot of Bailey, the converted safety who can fly all over the field and is excellent in coverage.
  • RT Brice Schwab vs. LDE Morgan Breslin: Last week, ASU surrendered just two sacks, but allowed consistent pressure throughout the game, which in turn rattled Taylor Kelly into the worst game of his career. Breslin has developed into a very good pass rusher, and he will pose a significant challenge to Schwab.
  • QB Taylor Kelly vs. FS T.J. McDonald: Kelly will look to shake off a horrible game, and to do so, will need to stand tall against pressure, and then account for McDonald, an All-American safety who will be a major factor against the run and the pass.

ASU on Defense: There are no surprises here. USC is going to pass, they are going to pass a lot, and they are going to pass very effectively.

Matt Barkley may not be in the Heisman race any more, but the senior is still one of the elite quarterbacks in the nation. He operates the Trojans' pro-style offense exceptionally well, and his accuracy and poise will make him the top threat faced at the position by the Sun Devil defense all year.

Of course, having two of the five best wide receivers in the nation helps any quarterback. Sophomore Marqise Lee has emerged as the nation's premier pass catcher, and is just about as "uncoverable" as any player in the nation. He already has 88 receptions for 1,286 yards and 12 touchdowns. It takes a talent like Lee to overshadow Robert Woods, who is an exceptional player in his own right. He doesn't take it downfield as much as Lee, but is still a top notch player with sure hands and great quickness. Combined, the duo have caught nearly 70% of USC's completed passes, so the Sun Devil secondary knows where the ball is going. Cornerbacks Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor will need plenty of safety help from Alden Darby and Keelan Johnson to limit the big plays. As if that wasn't enough, freshman Nelson Agholor has come on lately as an effective No. 3 option for Barkley.

The team has a pair of good young tight ends in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, who have combined for 29 catches and seven scores, so the Sun Devils can't focus all coverage attention on Lee and Woods.

When the Trojans aren't passing for tons of yards, they are running effectively with Penn State transfer Silas Redd. A powerful runner, Redd already has nine touchdowns and averages 5.4 yards-per-carry. Behind him is Curtis McNeal, a speedy back who topped 1,000 yards last year. Together, they will present another dangerous threat for a Sun Devil run defense that has surrendered 775 rushing yards over the last three games.

ASU's best hope for victory will be to attack the Trojan line and disrupt Barkley before he can hit Lee and Woods. While the Sun Devils are second in the nation in sacks, the USC line gives up very few. ASU defensive tackle Will Sutton says he will be back to 100% following a knee injury, and the team will need him to play to that level to have a chance to get to Barkley consistently. Carl Bradford and Junior Onyeali will need to find success alone the edges against tackles Max Turek and Kevin Graff.

Key Match-Ups:

  • CB Osahon Irabor & Deveron Carr vs. WR Marqise Lee and Robert Woods: The most lethal pass catching tandem in the nation could be in line for a huge day. Irabor has had a solid season, but Carr has struggled recently, and the entire ASU secondary has surrendered a number of big plays in recent weeks. The game will be decided here.
  • ASU's Pass Rush vs USC's Offensive Line: The best pass defense is to not allow a pass, especially with a scuffling secondary. Only one team in the nation gets to the quarterback more than ASU, so their best hope is to attack Barkley. USC has done a great job protecting him, surrendering just five sacks over the last six games.
  • LB Brandon Magee vs. RB Silas Redd: USC is a passing team, but they also have two very talented backs. Redd already has 723 yards and nine touchdowns, and he adds a dynamic element to the Trojan offense. Magee is averaging nearly 10 tackles-per-game over the last month and will be counted on to shutdown Redd.

Special Teams: ASU's special teams continue to be a mixed bag. Punter Josh Hubner continues to be great and should be in line for a first team All-Pac-12 slot with his powerful, yet accurate leg. Kevin Ayers blocked a punt last week for a safety against Oregon State.

However, kicker Jon Mora badly missed a 37-yard field goal, and that aspect of the team remains very unpredictable. Both the kick return and kick coverage games continue to struggle last week in Corvallis.

USC brings a strong kickoff return game with Marqise Lee, who is averaging nearly 30 yards per return, including a 100-yard score. Andrei Heidari is a steady, if unspectacular kicker, having hit seven of his 10 attempts this year for a team that rarely settles for field goals. Punter Kyle Negrete is having a strong season, averaging 44.3 yards per punt. Their coverage teams have struggled, as the Trojans rank 80th in punt coverage and 88th against kickoff returns.

ASU's To Do List:

  • Limit the damage of Lee and Woods
  • Get to Barkley early and often to disrupt rhythm
  • Force multiple turnovers
  • Finish drives with touchdowns, not field goals

What It All Means: Winning this game will be a daunting challenge for ASU, but it's within their grasp. The front seven will need to have a great night in the pass rush, beating up Barkley and disrupting him before he can get it out to Lee and Woods, for whom the ASU secondary (nor any secondary, really) can not contain on their own. The Sun Devils will also need the benefit of a few Trojan turnovers. A lot of things need to fall ASU's way, perhaps too many to get a win, but it's closer than many people think.

Prediction: USC wins 45-31

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