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ASU Football: Pregame storylines to watch vs USC

Any given Saturday

NCAA Football: Utah at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

All signs are pointing toward another ugly showing for Arizona State (1-3, 0-1 Pac-12) when it takes on No. 6 USC (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) Saturday night in Los Angeles. However college football has a tendency to leave jaws on the floor and hands on heads, especially in supposed no-brainers like this game.

It would be a historic first career win for interim head coach Shaun Aguano if he could pull off the upset, but it is no doubt an uphill climb for ASU. Below are three storylines from House of Sparky that could be meaningful for the Sun Devils.

Who will win the turnover battle? And will it lead to points?

The last four matchups (each team is 2-2) between the Sun Devils and Trojans have been nothing short of thrilling, at least if you are a Sun Devil fan and you count last year’s 31-16 home victory. In the last three, there have been at least five turnovers combined between the teams.

Linebacker Kyle Soelle leads the team with two interceptions. Defensive tackle Nesta Jade Silvera and safety Khoury Bethley each have a forced fumble on the year. All three led the team in tackles last week against Utah (Bethley with 14, Silvera and Soelle with 12). These players are experienced, and they are constantly around the ball.

All three levels of the defense have impact players. If someone is going to make a game-changing play, look to this pool of talent.

Last week against Utah, the ASU defense forced an interception and a turnover on downs. The subsequent Sun Devil drives ended in a turnover on downs of their own and a fumble, respectively.

“You know, sometimes we only have a certain amount of time to make those corrections, but it’s important for us to go back and make those corrections and teach more than having more plays on the field without going back and reflecting on that part of it,” interim head coach Shaun Aguano said. “And so, I’m holding our coaches accountable to make sure that they’re concise with their meetings and making sure that there’s corrections made so kids understand what they’re doing wrong and not letting those things go on and on.”

When you catch a break against good teams, it needs to translate to points.

What is going to change offensively? It is past time.

Aguano, offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas and ASU are committed to keeping the explosive USC offense off the field. At the end of the day, first downs and points are what matter, and the Sun Devils are lacking in both departments.

ASU was 3-for-11 on third downs last week against Utah, and put up just 13 points. The lone touchdown connection was a garbage-time pass from Emory Jones to tight end Messiah Swinson. Against No. 9 Oklahoma State, they converted 2-for-13 third-down tries, also for 13 points.

USC has an even higher pedigree than both teams. Something will have to change, and it starts with quarterback Emory Jones. Jones is coming off his worst game of the season where he threw two interceptions and had a season-low 8.3 college-rated QBR.

We’re learning as well. Coach Glenn Thomas is learning what I want as well,” Aguano said. “For Emory to be involved in the passing game, I think it goes back to playing basketball. If you can’t make that outside shot, then you have to make sure we drive to make a layup. And so, if we can’t get the passing game started, then I’m going to get you involved somewhere else that you can be effective from a confidence level and for our productivity with our team.”

Running back Xazavian Valladay rushed for 100-plus yards in each of the first three games. Valladay recorded just 30 yards on the ground last Saturday. After sacks, the Sun Devils had a whopping 6 rushing yards to their name by game’s end.

Will USC sleep on the Wyoming transfer after a down week? It is unlikely. Granted there were different coaching staffs on both sides, Rachaad White thrashed USC for 202 yards and three touchdowns last year. There are people in that program that do not forget.

Also, how will Aguano and Thomas incorporate running back Daniyel Ngata? The former four-star recruit has yet to rush for over 60 yards in a game this season, but he has excelled in the kick-returning game the last two weeks.

“(Ngata’s) done the job. He’s the guy (as a returner),” Aguano said. “Now I’m asking him to be more of a part of the offense and be a complement to (Valladay) as well. So he has a lot on his plate. For the first time coming off the field, he is so intrinsically competitive that he’s hard on himself a lot of the time. But he came off the field even though we weren’t in victory at the end of the field, he came off with a smile that I haven’t seen for a long time. And so I got him. He’s all in.”

Just how badly will Eric Gentry wreak havoc?

It seems like forever ago when former-ASU linebacker Eric Gentry had the memorable goal-line stop against UCLA last season. Gentry went on to become a consensus Freshman All-American, but left Tempe for sunny SoCal and the subsequent NIL opportunities that come with the Trojan troupe.

“There’s one player that I think is doing really well that I wish him the best, that is a linebacker that left us,” Aguano said. “And so I understand the athleticism, and I’ve always had a great relationship with Eric Gentry and I wish him the best and they got to do what’s best for them. But how do we match up? I believe that we can take and exploit the athleticism because sometimes athleticism leads to an un-foundational play.”

Was this a subtle jab at something we didn’t see with Gentry at ASU? It could be a more general statement about the uncanny negative correlation of talent and discipline.

Regardless, Gentry is having a huge year at USC, leading the team in tackles while also hauling in an interception. He also has a pair of pass breakups that were tipped and led to interceptions.

His 6-foot-6 frame is extremely difficult to deal with at the line of scrimmage, and when dropping back into coverage. He also has mental baggage associate with this game. Watch out.

“You know, you talk about pressure and then you talk about turnovers,” Thomas said. “I think (the USC defense leads) the country maybe in turnovers, right? Interceptions, a lot of interceptions. So, they do a good job. Obviously, they got guys around the ball to create some problems. They play hard.”