The nonconference portion of Arizona State's schedule has come and gone, and while the play was not as sharp as some would have liked, it is time for a fresh start. Pac-12 play is upon us, and the first opponent on tap is a talented but reeling USC team.
Here are five keys to this week's contest:
1. Convert on third down:
Stanford exposed many weaknesses in the Trojan defense last week, but the biggest key for the Cardinal was their 66 percent success rate on third down. USC was unable to come up with big stops all night long, and it paid dearly for it.
The conversions weren't just on third and short though. Nearly half of them came on plays from longer than five yards out of the line to gain, so the Sun Devil offense needs to stay committed and not fret if faced with a third and long. Like Todd Graham, Justin Wilcox likes to have his defense blitz on third down. Picking up that pressure and giving quarterback Mike Bercovici time to work in the pocket is the first step to getting a win in the Pac-12 opener.
2. Get Richard and Foster the ball in space:
The Trojans struggled with communication and tackling on Saturday, so I expect Demario Richard and D.J. Foster to have big days if they can get the ball out in the open and in the flats. Ideally we would see a replica of the play below from Friday's win against New Mexico, complete with the textbook wide receiver block on the outside.
Linebacker Lamar Dawson received most of the flack for his defense's poor performance, but last weekend's contest was just his first since 2013. With a full 60 minutes now under his belt, a better game against the maroon and gold should be in the cards. Expect him to be tested early and often to see if that hypothesis is proven true.
3. Time of possession:
Okay, so the Sun Devils did get a fairly easy victory last week despite having the ball for 13 less minutes than the Lobos. That's not going to happen this time around.
Steve Sarkisian's offense is explosive and can compete with almost anyone in the country, and they will not be coming up empty in red zone trips like New Mexico did. Led by quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Tre Madden, and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC is averaging 48 points per game thus far in 2015. It would behoove Bercovici and company to keep that trio off the field for as long as possible.
4. Bercovici's feet:
Arizona State's signal caller has been reluctant at times this year to call his own number on the read option, but the results have been outstanding whenever he has.
Most recently, we saw Bercovici keep the ball for an eight yard touchdown run against the Lobos, going untouched all the way to the end zone. More of that will be needed to get an already flustered Trojan defense out of sync even more.