The Arizona State Sun Devils head down to Los Angeles to take on USC this weekend.
The teams enter at opposite ends of the standings, but schematically don’t differ all too much.
Let’s take a look at the Trojans and how their scheme matches up against the Sun Devils.
Head Coach: Clay Helton
Defense: 3-4, Multiple
New quarterback, new hope. Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold was finally named the Trojans starting quarterback after their 1-2 start. Maybe it was the plan all along, to not toss him in too soon against the likes of Alabama and Stanford.
Who knows? All that’s important, at least to ASU head coach Todd Graham, is that Darnold adds a new element in terms of skill set that he’ll have to prepare for, and that’s athleticism under center.
The San Clemente (Calif.) product has only played one game, but has looked very elusive in the pocket. Graham noted USC has been able to incorporate the zone-read option play because of his ability as a runner.
Against Utah, the Trojans tried to make life simple for their quarterback, calling quite a few passing plays which included All-Curl and Smash route combinations.
With weapons such as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steven Mitchell and Darreus Rogers available on the outside, the short passing game, though not exclusively utilized, was used to keep Utah defenders on their toes.
Helton also didn’t shy away from attack the Utes vertically, as Darnold made use of receiver Smith-Schuster deep on the outside and tight end Taylor McNamara along the seams and over the middle.
On the ground, the Trojans, as Graham put it, have the best group the Sun Devils will face this season. The USC backfield features three talented players: Justin Davis, Ronald Jones II, and Aca’Cedric “Ced” Ware.
Davis, the starter, is the most complete of the three, while Jones II provides electric speed to complement Ware’s more physical running style. The three run behind a line that has combined for nearly 150 starts and has an average height-weight measurement of 6-foot-5, 318 pounds.
The Trojans vary their run block schemes, but—as you could expect—often executed power run plays along with zone runs.
Against Utah, USC even lined up in an unbalanced formation just to add extra beef when running this power play.
Having been stifled for the better half of four games, the running game is a very underrated phase of the USC offense coming in.
Where ASU needs to be careful
Darnold is slippery and can extend plays with his feet.
While the Sun Devils did an excellent job of wrapping up the quarterback against California, Darnold is more reminiscent of UTSA’s Dalton Sturm than he is Davis Webb—and he has the better weapons to truly make a defense pay.
This will be the biggest test of an already embattled, young secondary.
In the run game, the interior of the line must avoid being completely moved off the ball at the snap. Tashon Smallwood, George Lea and Ami Latu will need to do well plugging up gaps and preventing anyone of the Davis-Jones-Ware trio to find rushing lanes and advance to the second level.
Although USC’s offensive line has underperformed by its standards, it is still a talented group. If any of its members can consistently meet ASU linebackers at the second level, the Sun Devils will pay mightily.
More importantly, allowing the Trojans to establish the running game will open up things over the middle, just as it did for USC against the Utes.
Where ASU has the advantage
Against Alabama, the USC offensive line found itself lost, having to deal with the talent both on the interior and the outside of the Crimson Tide defensive front.
Tim Williams, arguably the most dominant edge rushers in the country, was shown special attention throughout the contest.
On several plays, almost immediately after the ball was snapped, the USC offensive line shifted to the right—William's side of the field. This opened up things for the opposite edge players to have a free lane to the quarterback. While Koron Crump isn’t necessarily of the same caliber, he does share a trait with Williams: a great speed rush.
Crump could potentially be a threat to the USC passing game coming off the edge should he perform at the same level he did against Cal. However, this is a tall ask; the USC offensive line is of a much higher pedigree.
Aside from Crump, the blitz overall is something that will be fairly new to Darnold when he faces the Sun Devils. Utah didn’t appear to frantically pressure him, and during his series against Alabama, he was flushed out of the pocket against a five-man rush.
Last season, Graham defeated star freshmen quarterbacks Josh Rosen (UCLA) and Jake Browning (Washington). With Darnold making just his second career start, the opportunity to make things uneasy for him is possible, however not a given, considering this season ASU is blitzing at what’s the lowest rate of snaps since Graham has arrived in Tempe.
The Trojans use a 3-4 scheme which features four linebackers and three down linemen. This alignment allows USC to make use of its linebacking corps, which is one of the best in the conference.
There’s talent all over the field, most notably in the secondary, which features names such as Adoree Jackson, Iman Marshall, Marvell Tell, and Chris Hawkins. The Trojans, from what I could tell this season, mostly incorporate man schemes, pitting their talented players outside in one-on-one situations.
Where ASU needs to be careful
There are two players that ASU will need to somehow stop on the USC defense in order to pull off the victory this weekend: linebacker Cameron Smith and nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu.
Let’s start with Tu’ikolovatu. The nose tackle is at the heart of USC’s 3-4 scheme, and the 6-foot-1, 320-pounder’s positioning had a massive impact on the way the Utes offense ran early on in the contest.
Of USC’s opponents, Utah’s offense resembles ASU’s the most, utilizing the zone-read and run-pass option however emphasize the vertical passing game a bit more. Maintaining leverage at the interior of the line of scrimmage is key to performing the option, however the Utes—despite having All-Pac-12 performer JJ Dielman starting at center—were unable to hold ground there because of Tu’ikolovatu.
Whether Stephon McCray or AJ McCollum is starting at center for ASU, maintaining the advantage against him, and keeping him from dismantling the RPO game, is imperative for the Sun Devils.
Now, let’s look at Smith, the heady linebacker who I’d argue is the heart of the Trojans defense.
Smith has a great nose for the ball, and will find a way to be involved on nearly every defensive play that isn’t occurring 20 yards downfield it seems.
In the play above, he snuffs out a read-option play flowing down from his middle linebacker role and wrapping up the quarterback. ASU will need to try to avoid running towards him too often. In fact, even as a pass defender, while not the quickest, he’s a very sure tackler if he’s within vicinity of the ball carrier.
Where ASU has the advantage
The Trojans like to leave their cornerbacks in one-on-one situations, operating mostly out of man coverage. Should ASU find a way to get its RPO game going early, it will open up opportunities for receivers Jalen Harvey and N’Keal Harry to be featured in scenarios such as this:
Against Cal, we saw just how effective Harvey was in these situations, gaining four first downs on his first four catches of the game. He’s proven especially good in man-to-man matchups such as these.
Meanwhile, Harry (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) has demonstrated just how dominant he can be in situations such as these, too. After Tim Patrick’s (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) six-catch, 100-yard performance against the Trojans, there’s no reason to believe Harry isn’t capable of it.
Games Viewed: USC vs. Alabama (2016 - Full), USC vs. Stanford (2016 - Full), USC @ Utah (2016 - Full)