The Arizona State Sun Devils will visit the USC Trojans in their first road Pac-12 conference game of the year this weekend.
The bout will mark the first time the two programs meet in Southern California since arguably the most epic moment of ASU football’s modern history: “the Jael Mary.”
However, ASU head coach Todd Graham said he’s not very reflective of that night, though he said he did thank Jaelen Strong the last time he saw him for it. He said he remembers the play, and hopes for more memorable moments like that.
Still, this week, it is visions of Trojan receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Steven Mitchell, along with the athleticism of Adoree Jackson, and what they did to ASU in Tempe last season, that is kept in thought.
“Very similar team,” Graham said of the current Trojans roster in comparison of last season’s. “We will not play, and have not played against better running backs, receivers. They’ve got four or five receivers that are big time. This will be the best offensive line we’ve played against. Their tight ends are very talented. Dynamic in the special teams with Adoree (Jackson).”
The Trojans offense has special talent, and that talent—the passing game, specifically—has had its way with the Sun Devils’ secondary before.
When USC came to Tempe last season, it routed ASU, 42-14, with quarterback Cody Kessler amassing 375 yards passing and tossing for five touchdowns. Graham’s secondary—which is conceding 404 passing yards per game—is as young a group as he says he’s ever fielded while at ASU, suggesting there could more fireworks in this season’s tilt.
However, the unit is battle-tested having faced the country’s two leading passing offenses (Texas Tech, Cal). There’s been a number of youthful moments, but more importantly, Graham said the unit has gotten better every game.
“We’re learning as we go and we’re getting better,” Graham said. “The great thing is we’ve been able to learn and get better, and be 4-0.”
The fifth-year coach would like to keep it that way, but the unit will be sent through the ringer once again when it meets “the most talented team, physically and skill-wise” they’ve faced all season. Those with experience will be heavily relied upon to contribute.
Graham said defensive back Laiu Moeakiola will primarily play SPUR, and praised the redshirt senior’s play there, along with the performances of the other seasoned members of the secondary. He said they’ve been leaders amongst their unit.
“(Safety Armand Perry), Laiu, (and) Kareem Orr are all guys with experience,” Graham said. “So the other two positions are guys that don’t have experience.”
Luckily—or unluckily— for ASU, while the dynamic talent at receiver looks just about the same for USC, the man throwing the ball won’t be. In fact, he’s almost as green to the starting role as possible entering the contest.
Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold will be making his second career start for USC this Saturday; his first at the Coliseum. Graham said the young signal-caller has a talented arm, but said his athleticism sets him apart from Max Browne, the quarterback who was demoted in favor of Darnold.
“(Darnold’s) very good,” Graham said. “They run some read zone with him. Very athletic, can run. Both of them (Darnold and Browne) are very similar arms—throw the deep ball well, hit the seams well. Both of them manage the system very well.”
Graham has had recent success against young quarterbacks, most recently UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Washington’s Jake Browning in 2015.
Bringing an assortment of pressure was key to ASU winning then. It could play an important factor in this week’s contest too, even though the Sun Devils haven’t been as blitz-happy as most Graham defenses typically are.
“It’s difficult because the less you pressure, then you need to be a little bit more diverse in your coverage packages,” Graham said. “We pressured a little bit more last week. If you don’t do it as much, then you’re not as good at it.”
Graham said during Monday’s presser that this is the most toned down his aggressive defensive play-calling has been since 2012, when he first arrived. He had said during the offseason that his defense would take a more conservative, zone-based approach this year. Through four games, it’s held true.
There’s a reason for this approach, he explained, saying it’s implemented in order to adapt to the youth he has in the secondary. There’s a been few miscues—or “critical errors” as Graham refers to them—that occur each game which he said prevents the group from playing a complete game.
“We’ll have some guys playing really, really well for all but three plays, but those three plays give up 14 points or something,” Graham said. “It’s just kind of one of those things—alignments, stances, keys, and first step—and so I think that we probably were trying to do too much earlier too much earlier in the season maybe.”
So far, the errors, though critical, haven’t been devastating. Graham is hoping that his unit continues to grow, while also bringing along his patented relentless-blitz style.
“We’re trying to find where that happy medium is,” Graham said. “Because ... you can’t just be completely simple. But, you’ve gotta be able to execute what you’re trying to execute, so I think we’re figuring out what we’re trying to do.”
The Sun Devils secondary is battled-tested. So is USC, and not just in one area, but as a whole. Opening week saw the Trojans suffer a 52-6 loss at the hands of Alabama. After beating Utah State, they suffered in-conference defeats to Stanford and Utah in successive weeks.
Entering this week’s contest 1-3, USC has everything to prove, and upending ASU’s 4-0 start could be just the jumpstart the storied program needs.
Graham is not underestimating his opponent.
“I would say they’ve played really good people, and they’ve played in really close games,” he said. “Their record is not indicative of what kind of team they are.”
Regardless, the Sun Devils have an opportunity to gain a key win towards their goal of winning the Pac-12. There’s a chance to prove they’re a legitimate threat to claim the conference title this season, and the Maroon and Gold are looking to nothing more than return from Los Angeles with a win.
On LB Christian Sam returning this week
“I really just don’t know. He was getting better last week, and we’re hoping that he’ll be ready to go this week. I don’t know though.”
- Sam hasn’t played since suffering an ankle injury during ASU’s win over Northern Arizona.
On the defensive line, linebackers:
“Our defensive line and our linebackers … and our run stopping there is the strength of our defense.”
- Senior LB Salamo Fiso made a return to the field last week, helping galvanize ASU’s defense. Graham said NT Ami Latu had his best game of the year against Cal, and named Perry as another standout from the win.
On QB Manny Wilkins:
“I think he’s grown every week. I think he’s faced adversity in both games and responded well. He’s a 4-0 quarterback, so he’s done well.”
- Wilkins has now led comebacks in consecutive games against UTSA and Cal. He was named the Davey O’Brien “Great 8” Player of the Week.
On K Zane Gonzalez
“He’s just worked his tail off. ... He deserves every accolade he’s getting.”
Gonzalez was named the Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week for the second week in a row after nailing three field goals against Cal and notching seven touchbacks on 10 kickoffs.