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ASU Football: Sun Devils face injury-worn Trojans eyeing Pac-12 supremacy

This should be a good one.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The roller coaster that has been the Arizona State Sun Devils‘ 2017 season has jumped from loop to loop, through ups and downs and now has a chance to rise to the top of the conference rankings.

It began with a narrow win, then two horrific losses, followed by a complete turnaround mostly fueled by the defense. The Sun Devils (4-3, 3-1 Pac-12) have been thrown right into the mess of the Pac-12 South standings, eye to eye with the USC Trojans (6-2, 4-1).

Defeated, broken and bruised, literally, the Trojans have 18 players either out, questionable or probable for Saturday, and are coming off an grueling 49-14 loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

The most detrimental of injuries for the Trojans have come on defense. Linebacker Porter Gustin (toe/bicep), who was second on the team in tackles in 2016, is out. Iman Marshall (knee), who leads the Trojans in passes defended (8), is out. And most recently, USC’s sack leader (6.5), Christian Rector, is reportedly out with a hand injury.

Flip the script to look at ASU, and the Sun Devils have dealt with injuries as well, losing two major role players to injury: Koron Crump, Joey Bryant. Marcus Ball, who earned the second-most tackles for ASU last season, retired due to epileptic seizures.

Crump’s absence brought about new defensive talent in Jay Jay Wilson who moved from tight end to linebacker and caught pick-six against Utah. Bryant’s departure has made room for Chase Lucas to flourish, who also had an interception against the Utes, and along with the rest of the ASU secondary, the Sun Devils haven’t allowed over 200 yards to an opposing quarterback in the last three games he’s started (Stanford, Washington and Utah).

On Saturday, the new-look defense faces Sam Darnold, who hasn’t been his 2016 self. With 10 interceptions and 17 touchdowns, he’s already eclipsed his INT total from his freshman season: nine.

The Sun Devils recorded nearly half that total with four interceptions last week vs. Utah. Prior to week eight against Utah, the Sun Devils had a five-game interception drought, dating back to game one against New Mexico State.

“Catching the football was something important to us,” Lucas said. “We were dropping a lot of picks. You know, punching out the ball after the plays... So hopefully against SC we’re going to get four to five (turnovers) again. Put our offense in the a good position and just win that game.”

Up front, the Sun Devils may also cause havoc for Darnold. While the ASU has recovered just three fumbles all season, Darnold has fumbled the ball six times in the last three games, and four of them have been recovered by opposing players.

DJ Calhoun, Arizona State’s tackling leader, knows Darnold has an eye for opposing pass rushers. Darnold was sacked just six times in 2016, but has been tackled behind the line of scrimmage 14 times this season.

“He loves pressure,” Calhoun said. “He wants people to come after him. He has a third eye, I guess you can say. If someone comes from the back, he just starts moving and spinning.”

Offensively, the Sun Devils have a renewed run game, mostly because of the reemergence of Demario Richard.

Richard hurt his knee against New Mexico State, sidelining him for the next two contests. The Sun Devils rushed for as low as 44 yards against San Diego State, and rank 10th in the Pac-12, averaging 127.4 yards per game.

Recently though, run production has flourished. In two of their past three games, the the Sun Devils have ran for over 200 yards (Stanford and Utah.)

“It’s been my health. I’m healthy. I’m back healthy and I’m betteer,” Richard said. “We’re just more confident running the football. It’s just a mindset.”