TEMPE, Ariz. — In its Pac-12 opener against Stanford last Saturday, Arizona State got a reality check. The Sun Devils weren’t ready to compete with the defending conference and Rose Bowl champions.
This week is different. With Pac-12 South foe USC in town, the stakes are higher for ASU than they have been so far this season, and unlike last week, the Sun Devils are expected to win.
“This is a big game,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “I haven’t dodged that with our kids at all. Every game in the Pac-12 is a must-win, and especially this one.”
While USC doesn’t bring the marquee opponent value it did in previous seasons — a 7-6 effort after opening No. 1 in the polls, as USC did last year, will take its toll — this game is easily the Sun Devils’ most important yet.
Pole position in the Pac-12 South race is at stake just five weeks into the season. Both teams have a conference loss already, USC’s coming against Washington State, and both desperately hope to avoid falling to 0-2 in Pac-12 play. A win for either team could position it for a decisive late-season meeting with reigning South champion UCLA for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game, though UCLA must first get through a brutal conference schedule.
USC may have even greater need for a win. Coach Lane Kiffin has been on the hot seat since last season, but the loss to Washington State turned the heat up significantly. Fans and alumni alike appear unhappy with the state of the program, and a loss in Tempe would only further rile the masses.
Accordingly, the Trojans are coming at the Sun Devils with everything they’ve got. It was enough to beat Hawaii and Boston College and squeak past Utah State last week, but ASU presents a stiffer challenge, particularly for a revamped defense.
Former Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast arrived in the offseason and installed an attacking 5-2 defense to better suit USC’s personnel and better defend the spread offenses of the Pac-12.
“We’ve invested a lot of time and energy over there into a lot of changes,” Kiffin said of the defense. “That has definitely paid off through four games.”
USC currently leads the Pac-12 and ranks fourth in the nation in total defense. It leads the Pac-12 in sacks, and its rush defense ranks third in the nation.
“They’ve been very dominating,” Graham said. “Probably the strength of their team right now is they’re playing great defense.”
Graham also said USC’s defense is a little hard to evaluate right now, which is true considering the competition. ASU’s up-tempo offense could be the one to break through and expose that defense a bit.
On the other side of the ball, USC has struggled. With new quarterback Cody Kessler yet to find a rhythm, the offense ranks 106th nationally. The passing offense ranks 108th at just 163.5 yards per game.
“We’ve just got to get out there and pressure,” ASU defensive tackle Will Sutton said. “Once we pressure and get to the quarterback, get some hits on him, he’ll get rattled.”
If that proves true, it’ll be bad news for USC receiver Marqise Lee. The Heisman Trophy candidate is already not having the season many expected of him, as he and Kessler have yet to find a consistent connection. Still, the Sun Devils respect Lee’s game-changing ability. They have to after last year’s game in Los Angeles.
Even in bracket coverage, Lee, whom Graham called the best receiver in the nation, burned the ASU defense for 161 yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions, including one for 80 yards. As dangerous as Lee can be, ASU’s defensive backs welcome the challenge.
“I want to be on his side every play, honestly,” senior afety Alden Darby said. “Every single play, I want to be where he’s at.”
Darby said ASU should benefit from the lack of connection between Kessler and Lee thus far.
“He has to run more true routes,” Darby said. “He can’t just get open and know Matt Barkley’s going to see him and throw the ball to him.”
But if ASU is to even have the chance to shut down USC’s passing attack, it must first shut down the run, which has been a problem the past two weeks. ASU allowed 231 rushing yards to Wisconsin and 240 to Stanford. The Sun Devils also allowed 222 yards on the ground to the Trojans in a 38-17 loss last season.
“We had a good plan and got a lot of good takeaways from them, but late in the game they were able to run the ball, and that was a difference,” Graham recalled. “We have to stop the run. We have to be focused on doing that, and then you’ve got to contain the pass and make sure you don’t give up cheap ones — that’s a challenge.”
The challenge will be even tougher with starting defensive tackle Jaxon Hood out due to a hamstring injury. Hood’s absence has pushed defensive end Gannon Conway inside and Davon Coleman into the starting lineup in Conway’s place.
While many elements of the game seem stacked in ASU’s favor, there are other issues to consider. ASU’ s special-teams units have been sloppy the past two weeks, particularly against Stanford. The run game has been ineffective thus far, with an average of 108.0 yards per game and just 83.0 the past two.
But for all the criticism ASU taken through three games — absent running game, disappointing numbers from a talented defensive line, special-teams blunders — it should be noted that ASU is amid perhaps the toughest four-game stretch in school history. Wisconsin and Stanford have made many teams before ASU look less capable than they truly are.
Saturday’s game offers the Sun Devils the chance to quiet critics and start playing like the team many picked to win the Pac-12 South. They will likely need this game to fulfill those predictions.
“We’re very candid with our guys that the Pac-12 conference is the most important thing, and then moreover than that the Pac-12 South,” Graham said. “It starts with USC. It starts this week.”