Every game is the most important game of the season. That's the old cliche, but it has never held more true than it does this afternoon. This is absolutely a must-win game for the Sun Devils, and here's what our staff thinks about today's tilt with USC.
Justin Emerson: Managing Editor (@J15Emerson)
Nick Krueger: Managing Editor (@NickPKrueger)
Jason Galvin: Columnist (@Jason_Galvin)
Ryan Bafaloukos: Staff writer (RyanBafo)
Shane Theodore: Staff writer (@shane_writes)
Connor Pelton: Staff writer (@ConnorPelton28)
UCLA ripped the defense to shreds. Quite simply, how does the coaching staff ensure that does not happen again?
Emerson: Tackling. So many missed tackles and broken assignments caused the UCLA fiasco, and emphasizing that in practice and correcting those issues could go a long way.
Krueger: Well I think it starts with using timeouts more effectively, that's something they can control as a staff. Second I would say make sure to stick with the game plan, even if things go south early in the game, they need to stick to the ground game and keep DJ Foster involved. I have to believe by now that the time for tinkering with personnel has passed for the most part, keep the substitutions strictly to catch their breath and see if you can find the right formula and let them develop some chemistry.
Galvin: They don't, really. The defense is so young, it's going to make mistakes. The best thing the coaching staff can do is keep it simple. Too many complicated schemes, and too many assignments, will lead to missed assignments. The tackling is something that just needs to be worked on during practice, and it will come with time.
Bafaloukos: This is a hard question to answer because I am not sure if they can ensure that it does not happen again. There will be some growing pains with so many new faces and such a young defense. I think what the coaches can do is preach fundamentals and try to get them not thinking as much and just playing.
Theodore: Can they? I think there's a certain point in the season where we need to accept that the preseason concerns about this defense have been validated. Arizona State's defense simply isn't very good this year. Does that mean that these players won't continue to grow? No, they're just too young right now to be able to compete with Pac-12 offenses. That'll be the story of this season, along with Kelly's injury.
Pelton: I don't know how much of a change we are going to see in nine days, especially with an offense as loaded as USC's. The best time to work on a major change would be during the upcoming bye week proceeding the Stanford game. They key this week will be limiting the mistakes. We know some will be made, because the fact of the matter is just that this defense isn't very good. But if they focus on being assignment-oriented and tackle well in open space, I'm sure there will be a much better outcome than we saw against UCLA. It would be nearly impossible to do worse.
D.J. Foster was held in check last week. Now that the real challenges have started, do you see Foster as the player he was in the first three games, or the one against UCLA?
Emerson: Foster is an elite talent, and I'd be less surprised if he picks up 200 goals than if he put up 50. He's the player we saw the first three weeks and fully expect him to return to that level.
Krueger: Mike Bercovici said in practice this week that his 68 pass attempts were part of the game flow and I have to believe that. I think Foster's inefficiency against UCLA was a casualty of not allowing him to find a rhythm in the game because the Sun Devils spent so much time passing the ball trying to get back into it. UCLA was not the real D.J. Foster and he should come back against USC without issue.
Galvin: I think DJ is more of what we saw early on. The problem is, with Bercovici in and Kelly out, opponents are going to key in on him. The other problem with the UCLA game was the scoreboard. It's hard to get Foster going when you can't feed him the ball consistently. Look for the Sun Devils to force him the ball early and often.
Bafaloukos: I think he is in the middle. I don't think Foster will finish in the top 10 nationally in rushing yards, which was the pace he was on earlier. However, he only had nine carries against UCLA and to me that is unacceptable. I understand they were trailing the entire second half but he needs to get the ball in his hands more. I think Foster can average around 100 yards a game but against the USC's and Stanford's it is going to be difficult.
Theodore: I don't care about Thursday's game, DJ Foster is still one of the top offensive weapons In the country.His workload in the UCLA game was lessened because Arizona State trailed so much that it had to abandon the run game. Foster should be a big part of the gameplan this week and I expect he'll take advantage of it.
Pelton: Probably somewhere in the middle. But even if he does start the game looking like the back we saw in the first few weeks of the season, USC's defense will wisely force Mike Bercovici to beat it through the air and focus all its attention on Foster. So, maybe this is how we learn whether or not Foster is a marquee player? I definitely think this is a huge game for him.
If you were coach Todd Graham, what message would you have been preaching the most in practice this week?
Emerson: Not to lose interest in the season. It sounds silly but Graham wants this team to win a national title, and that's almost assuredly not going to happen. The Pac-12 South isn't out the question, but it will be if the Sun Devils lose today.
Krueger: Ball security. He always does to an extent but I really would have put an emphasis on it, especially with Bercovici, he has to take the down and throw the ball away if the throw isn't there. He also has the ability to tuck it and run which he didn't do enough of against UCLA. But ASU has to hang onto the ball. My first question to the team Monday would have been, "You thought the Bruins defense was tough?" This USC secondary will exploit any mistakes ASU makes so they have to be even more careful.
Galvin: Focus. Consistency. Accountability. The problem with this team is youth, and everyone knows it. All Graham and company can do is make sure this team doesn't lose focus, or interest, after that beating last week. This is going to be a learning year, especially if Kelly misses significant time.
Bafaloukos: I would just say it's one game and 99 percent of teams in the nation will lose one game. I would just try to get back to the little things, gap discipline and tackling on defense and ball security on offense. He mentioned earlier in the week that the sky is not falling and I think that is the perfect message to the team.
Theodore: To not feel bad for themselves. It'd be easy for a team to slump when they lose their quarterback but Graham has to emphasize the "next man up" principle. No excuses for bad play.
Pelton: That they were not as good as everyone thought throughout the first month of the year, and they are not as bad as everyone has been saying this past week. The UCLA game was bad, sure, but you can't let one loss turn into two or three. Last year the team bounced back nicely from each of its two regular season losses, and doing that against USC is crucial. To be honest, this team's talent is not going to change. Right now the problem is what's going on in-between the ears. If they go in with the right mindset, a win in Los Angeles is certainly possible.
How much of the UCLA loss do you put on Mike Bercovici, and do you feel confident with him at quarterback against USC?
Emerson: Almost none of what happened last week was Bercovici's fault. The pick-six at the end of the half was mistake, but other than that, he looked comfortable in the pocket. If Arizona State loses, it will be because of the defense, not because of the quarterback.
Krueger: Thirty percent. He needed to hang on to the ball and he couldn't, which cost his team some points, but there were also so many other things wrong with that game in terms of tackling and blown coverages. Hard to really blame a guy who throws for 488 yards.
Galvin: I don't think any of it was Bercovici's fault. The interception to end the half was a result of having to rush without a timeout available, and that's on Graham. You can't blame Bercovici for the touchdown to start the second half, nor for the kick return for a touchdown. I like Bercovici, and I believe he's going to impress as the season move along.
Bafaloukos: I don't put much of it on him. Did he make mistakes? Of course, but did anybody think he played a perfect game? If somebody told you last Wednesday that Bercovici would throw 68 times and Foster would rush only nine times, against UCLA would you think Arizona State wins? I have faith in him moving forward, his mobility may limit what they can do offensively but I think he will be just fine.
Theodore: What we learned about Bercovici is that he's going to be really good. How quickly does he make that transition from good, but with a gunslinger mentality, to making the safe decisions consistently? The offense is too talented around him and the coaches prepare him too well for me to think that Bercovici will struggle to score against any opponent. They'll live with his inexperience though, and the risk-taking mentality that he carries will lead to some turnovers in addition to the great plays.
Pelton: Very little of that was Bercovici's fault. Some of the problems just come with the natural switch of quarterbacks after three games and an entire fall camp playing with a different guy passing you the ball. The forced throw on the pick-six was obviously a very big turning point, but if the defense didn't fall asleep coming out of the locker rooms for the second half, the game still could have been won. I do not know if confident is the right word to describe my feelings for Bercovici heading into his second start, but I think he will play good enough to give Arizona State a shot at the upset. And that's all you can really ask from a backup.
Give us your final score prediction and one other prediction about the game.
Emerson: USC 45, Arizona State 35. Foster goes for 175 yards from scrimmage.
Krueger: USC-38 Arizona State- 27. The Trojans give up their first passing touchdown of the season to the Sun Devils, who find themselves up three points at halftime before USC rallies.
Galvin: 38-24 USC. The Trojans keep possession for 40 minutes.
Bafaloukos: I have USC winning 34-24. Trojans have too much speed on defense and at the skill positions.
Theodore: I think Arizona State is still a better team than the polls think and I don't think USC is as good as the polls think. So I expect a close game for at least the first half. But a packed Coliseum is not kind to young defenses, and I think that Bercovici just won't be able to keep up with Cody Kessler and the Trojans. 55-41 Trojans.
Pelton: 35-24 USC. The Trojans lead 17-0 at the end of the first quarter.