Arizona State travels to Los Angeles this week to take on No. 16 USC. Like No. 8 UCLA last week, the Trojans have been somewhat of a mystery through the first five weeks of the season. They've won some impressive games and lost one in embarrassing fashion. The Sun Devils will no question be looking to bounce back, but the Trojans will trying to cement their identity as a team firmly in the race for a Pac-12 South title. Remember, they were on the loosing end of a similar game Arizona State just suffered against UCLA, when the Sun Devils took it to them in Tempe winning 62-41 last season. The Trojans will want to avenge that loss Saturday afternoon.
USC this season
The Torjans had plenty to deal with before the season even started when redshirt senior wide receiver Josh Shaw admitted to lying to the program about saving his nephew from drowning in a pool. The University ran with the story prior to vetting everyone involved and wound up in a tangled mess. It didn't seem to effect USC in week one, however, taking care of Fresno State. 6-foot-1, 210 pound redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler connected on an 18-yard touchdown pass with freshman wide receiver Adoree' Jackson just before halftime to put the Trojans up 31-7 and effectively end any hope the Bulldogs had that day. The Trojans proceeded to run away to a 52-13 victory, Kessler finished 25 of 37 for 394 yards and a touchdown.
The following week was a defensive battle as then No. 14 USC faced No. 13 Stanford. The Cardinal did all their scoring in the second quarter as a 33-yard Jordan Williamson field goal put them up 10-7 going into halftime. As both defenses continued to make stands, USC finally broke through, tying the game at 10 late in the third quarter. Andre Heidari then hit another field goal, this one from 53 yards out with 2:30 to play, to give USC the 13-10 lead. They stopped Stanford again. The game was marked by weird developments throughout such as USC Athletic Director Pat Hayden coming down to the field to argue a call and Hayes Pollard getting ejected late in the third quarter. The Trojans were also called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for standing too close to the field. Regardless, they snapped the Cardinal's 17-game win streak at home.
The tables turned completely the following week at Boston College where USC fell apart. Ranked No. 9 in the country, the Trojans headed across the country looking to take care of business but couldn't do it. Although the Trojans got out to an early 10-0 lead, The Eagles came storming back, taking a 20-17 lead into the half after a 54-yard run by Sherman Alston with 1:27 remaining until the break. A Jon Hillman run from 1-yard out gave BC a two-score advantage, too much for the Tojans to overcome. In the fourth quarter, a 66-yard Tyler Murphy run put the Eagles up 37-24 and the Trojans couldn't complete the comeback, losing 37-31.
The Trojans had a week to think about their own identity during a bye before playing Oregon State at home this past weekend. USC looked a lot more like the team that beat Stanford this time around. OSU got up 10-7 early in the second quarter, but a 16-yard touchdown catch by sophomore Justin Davis and a 48-yard touchdown reception by sophomore Darreus Rogers put USC up 21-10 headed into halftime. It was more of the same in the second half as redshirt junior Javorius Allen ran into the end zone from 17 yards out early in the fourth quarter and Davis truly sealed the game with a 21-yard touchdown run with 5:02 to play. The USC defense was particularly impressive, holding OSU senior quarterback Sean Mannion to 123 yards passing with two interceptions.
USC on offense
This isn't the same pro-style offense that Arizona State fans saw against Lane Kiffin. New head coach Steve Sarkisian likes to hurry things up. This is actually good news for the Sun Devils who should be able to simulate it with relative ease in practice, given they run something similar. In the backfield, Tre Madden has been bothered with a toe injury, which means junior Javorius Allen leads the charge. He has 80 carries for 453 yards and two touchdowns. He's been splitting some carries with sophomore Justin Davis who has 41 carries for 157 yards and two scores as well.
The wide receivers are the most threatening group for the Trojans. Four players have over 100 yards receiving already, led by junior Nelson Agholor who has 26 catches for 239 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman Juju Smith has also stepped up catching 14 balls for 183 yards.
The offensive line has given up 10 sacks this season, but also had low expectations for this season and have over-achieved so far. Kessler has had plenty of time to throw, completing 72 percent of his passes to date. They lost First Team All Pac-12 center Marcus Martin and their is still a lot of youth up front but they're getting it done. The depth chart has two sophomores starting at right tackle and left tackle in Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler respectively. Freshmen will handle the guard spots in Viane Talamaivao and Toa Lobendahn. They're young, but both were four-star recruits coming out of high school so they definitely have some talent.
USC on defense
The Trojans will look different on defense as well. Clancy Pendergast is out as defensive coordinator and Justin Wilcox took over. Pendergast ran a 5-2 defense that honestly looked more like a 2-4-5 against spread teams like Arizona State. The goal was to force the ball inside. Wilcox puts more linemen down on the field, but USC will still try and work the ball inside to stop Arizona State effectively.
Last season the Trojans finished in the top 25 in 8 categories including No. 1 in red zone defense (.628), 12th in third down conversion defense (.327), 13th in total defense (335.2), 14th in pass efficiency defense (111.9), 15th rushing defense (120.6), 16th in scoring defense (21.2), 18th in fourth down conversion defense (.364) and 23rd in interceptions (17). The incredible part is eight players from that team return this season.
Juniors Antwaun Woods, Leonard Williams and Claude Pelon hold down the defensive front. The All-American Williams is far and away the most threatening and leads the team in tackles this season with 27. J.R. Tavai also functions as a rush-end, outside linebacker type and is currently fifth on the team in tackles with 20.
The linebackers are just as formidable. Senior Hayes Pullard is a 3-year starter with 308 career tackles. The team lost would be starter Jabari Ruffin to injury in camp but sophomore Scott Felix and junior Anthony Sarao have stepped up in his place at WILL and SAM respectively. The most interesting case on the defense is sophomore Su'a Cravens. He was a freshman All-American making 52 tackles with four interceptions last season at strong safety. Now he's playing some outside linebacker as well and it remains to be seen where he'll play Saturday.
Senior free safety Gerald Bowman and junior corner Kevon Seymour lurk in the secondary. Bowman has 26 tackles and an interception while Seymour already has five passes defended this season. Mike Bercovici will have a much tougher time throwing on this group and the Sun Devils may have to count more on their ground game again. The Trojans are currently giving up an average of 198 yards per game on the ground but only 155 through the air and have yet to allow a passing touchdown.
Senior Andre Heidari handles the field goal and kickoff duties. He's 4 of 6 on field goals but made that 53-yarder against Stanford. The Sun Devils should get a chance to return a few kicks as Heidari has kicked off 23 times, but only seven have resulted in a touchback.
Adoree' Jackson and Nelson Aghalor have split the return duties. Jackson has been the better of the two, returning six kicks averaging 27.8 yards. As a team the Trojans are averaging 18 yards per return. On punt return, Agahalor hasn't found much success, returning just seven punts for 3.9 yards. Kris Albarado has been average at best handling punting duties, averaging 40.5 yards per punt, booting the ball 20 times.