After one of the most tumultuous weeks in recent program history, rubber meets the road this weekend for Arizona State (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) as the team hosts USC (4-4, 3-3) in a game that could likely decide the future of the program.
However much noise will be made on the field Saturday night in Tempe will be like a whisper compared to the chatter that has surrounded both programs all season long.
For the Sun Devils, a season-long NCAA investigation has loomed like a dark cloud over the program since the middle of the summer. Three weeks ago, somewhere in the middle of halftime, the clouds burst. Up until a late first half touchdown catch last week by wide receiver LV Bunkley-Shelton, the Sun Devils were outscored 56-0 from the second half of the Utah game to the first half of the Washington State game.
This week, the murmurs about the future of almost everyone involved with the football program, from recruiters to coaches to athletic directors, crescendoed into loud questions about their job security. Questions were asked in the media about whether the players are motivated enough to finish out what has turned into a disappointing season.
On the field, the Sun Devils scuffled from start to finish against Washington State last week in an embarrassing 34-21 loss that at one point the Sun Devils had trailed 28-0. The offense fumbled three times and twice threw interceptions, the defense was either gashed or place in horrible field position and could not keep the Cougars out of the end zone.
This week, the Sun Devils get back their top running back in Rachaad White. On 86 carries, White has rushed for 477 yards and nine touchdowns. He is also a major threat as a receiver, and still is in the top-three on the team in receptions.
USC does not have the burden of an NCAA investigation, but things have not gone much better for the Trojans in 2021. After a 42-28 Week 2 loss to Stanford that wasn’t particularly close, the athletic department finally pulled the the trigger on firing Clay Helton, who had underachieved since his 2017 Rose Bowl victory. Since then, the Trojans, under interim coach Donte Williams, have struggled to maintain any consistency in performance from week to week.
One of the few bright spots this year for the Trojans has been wide receiver Drake London, and he shined like a supernova until the lights went out on his season last week against Arizona. In the second quarter, London caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from USC quarterback Jaxson Dart, but was hit in the leg by Arizona cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace as he crossed the goal line. He was carted off the field, and on Sunday, Williams confirmed his wide receiver was out for the season. It cut short one of the best receiving campaigns in the storied history of the Trojans.
This week, USC will have to find a way to make up for the production of a receiver that averaged 133.5 yards per game and has caught seven touchdowns.
For the Trojans and their fans, a Pac-12 Championship and a rematch with Oregon in the conference title game was the expectation when the season began. After the loss to Stanford, it has plainly appeared the Trojans, from the athletic department to the fanbase, have punted on the season. USC has at times looked unmotivated when the team takes the field, but it’s hard to blame young athletes when most of the conversation surrounding the team corners not on how they play but who will be their next head coach.
That speculation will continue until the next USC coach is hired with the promise to return the school to its former glory, which is all of a sudden more than a decade behind them.
This week, the Trojans will also be dealing with intense speculation at the quarterback position. Junior quarterback Kedon Slovis entered the season with enough good tape in his past and a future of possible improvement to warrant a high NFL draft selection in 2022. By those standards, Slovis has been a massive disappointment. But it has been a good year for the quarterback by the metrics of his numbers alone.
In eight games played in, Slovis has completed 177 passes for 2022 yards and 11 touchdowns to seven interceptions. However, an injury in the team’s first road game at Washington State sidelined the quarterback and opened the door for Dart, who began the season as a freshman backup after a high school career that saw him win Gatorade National Player of the Year honors.
Dart led the Trojans past the Cougars in a marvelous performance where he set the school record for passing yards in his debut (391).
Expect both quarterbacks to see time on Saturday, and both to have a keychain-sized leash if mistakes are made.
USC has not had a good defense all season long, and this should be where the Sun Devils separate themselves. A lot has been made about the last six quarters the team has played, but before the Utah game, the Sun Devils were riding one of the best six quarter stretches of the season. From the second half of the UCLA game to the end of the home contest against Stanford, the Sun Devils clamped their opponents and allowed only ten points to squeeze through their vise grip.
Without London this week, the Trojans will have to turn to running back Keontay Ingram, who transferred from Texas before the season. The likelihood of him responding well is high. The last two weeks, Ingram has rushed for 536 yards. Just last week against Arizona, Ingram rushed for 204 yards on 27 carries, the best rushing performance by a USC running back since 2018.
This game was billed before the season as a potential marquee Pac-12 matchup, the kind the conference has sorely lacked in recent years. Both teams would enter as ranked foes, and the winner would take the Pac-12 South, and have a square shot at the College Football Playoff.
That game died a long time ago. But this game still contains plenty of gallons of intrigue. Both programs have players from each other’s backyard. Both schools are facing uncertainty with the future of their coaching staffs. Both schools remember last season’s wild USC come-from-behind victory in Los Angeles.
And, it’s a football game. Someone will win, and someone will lose. That’s motivation enough for these players, who wouldn’t be at this level if losing was acceptable.
The Pac-12 South is still a possibility for the Sun Devils, but they have to prove to everyone, including themselves, that this season was not lost last Saturday afternoon.
They’ll have that chance this Saturday night. The kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., and the game can be seen on ESPN.