It seems a little early in the 2013 season for a meeting of two teams in must-win mode, but that appears to be how Arizona State and USC are approaching this weekend’s clash in Tempe.
The Trojans come to Sun Devil Stadium on a two-game winning streak but still have the black eye of a conference loss to Washington State. The Sun Devils look to bounce back from a reality check loss to Stanford on the road. Both teams know this game could knock them out of the Pac-12 South race, or at least put them in a tough spot the rest of the way.
The last time USC came to Tempe, in 2011, it lost to snap an 11-game winning streak against ASU. But last season, the Sun Devils couldn’t match the Trojans in a 38-17 loss at the Coliseum.
FOXSportsWest.com’s USC beat writer Rahshaun Haylock and FOXSportsArizona.com’s ASU beat writer Tyler Lockman track he teams on a daily basis. Here, they examine Saturday’s matchup through five key questions. Both can be followed on Twitter @RHaylock and @TylerLockman.
1. Many prognosticators are calling this game a toss-up. The betting lines narrowly favor Arizona State. What does your team do that could be the difference between a win and a loss this week? What could be its advantage?
Haylock: Pressure. USC’s ability to get to the quarterback has been an integral part of the turnaround on defense this season. The Trojans lead the conference in sacks with 16. USC’s run defense also has been solid. I don’t expect that to change. If Arizona State has an advantage offensively, it’s in the passing game, and USC’s ability to apply pressure to Taylor Kelly could be a key Saturday night. Morgan Breslin is a sack artist, and Devon Kennard, playing in his home state for the final time in a USC uniform, should be primed for a big game. Kennard is a player that could be in Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year discussions once the season is done.
Lockman: The big difference-maker is ASU’s offense. Put simply, ASU is getting it done on offense and USC isn’t, and you have to score points to win games. After ranking 41st in the nation in total offense last season, USC is currently at 106th. The Trojans are last in the Pac-12 in total offense and in scoring, averaging just 22.2 points per game. If USC could only score seven points on it’s first Pac-12 opponent, Washington State, it’s hard to imagine something a whole lot better against the Sun Devils. ASU’s offense currently ranks 43rd in the nation and seventh in the Pac-12, having faced tough defenses in Wisconsin and Stanford. This is the biggest offensive test USC’s new defense will have faced yet, and the Sun Devils should be able to put points on the board, while that’s a far less certain proposition for the Trojans.
2. USC currently ranks fourth in the nation in total defense, but the Trojans have played Hawaii, Washington State, Boston College and Utah State. ASU, meanwhile, has played Sacramento State, Wisconsin and Stanford and ranks 35th. Which defense do we really know more about right now?
Haylock: We know more about the USC defense because of the versatility. In Hawaii, under former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, the Trojans faced a more traditional offense. Washington State has a “Fun ‘N Gun” pass-heavy approach under Mike Leach. Boston College came into the Coliseum with a reputation of being a physical running team, and last week the Trojans faced a spread attack with a quarterback who’s a legitimate dual threat in Chuckie Keeton at Utah State. None of those teams are world-beaters by any stretch, but USC has shown the ability to adapt defensively from week to week, which is key as conference play gets into full swing.
Lockman: I believe we know more about ASU’s defense — not necessarily in a good way — simply because it has been tested by two capable offensive teams already. USC has faced some challenges adapting to different offenses, while ASU has faced two power run teams and an FCS offense, but taking on the Stanford and Wisconsin offenses is much different than facing those of Hawaii, Washington State, Boston College and Utah State. Based on those two tests, we know the Sun Devils’ run defense isn’t as far along as they had hoped, specifically on the outside. That could be a problem again this week. We also know the defense is playing a little sloppy right now, making mistakes — “critical errors” as Todd Graham and his players call them — that it did not make last season. ASU’s secondary also has two new starters and thus far has not matched what last year’s group did. Ultimately, we know ASU’s defense has work to do to hold up against top-tier teams, a must if the Sun Devils are to have a shot at a Rose Bowl berth. For the USC defense, this should be a telling game, a more true measure of where Clancy Pendergast’s new defense is.
3. USC brings star receiver Marqise Lee to Tempe this week, while ASU has an apparent emerging star in Jaelen Strong. Lee is obviously the more accomplished receiver, but the two have comparable numbers so far in different offenses, with Strong even tallying more yards in fewer games. Who has more of an impact Saturday?
Haylock: Strong will have more of an impact for the simple fact that USC is having issues in the passing game. Cody Kessler was knocked around last week by Utah State. The tight ends are underutilized, and no true No. 2 has emerged opposite Lee — running back Tre Madden is second on the team in receptions with nine. Combine that with the fact that Lee is in transition as the true No. 1 wide receiver, with Robert Woods now playing for the Buffalo Bills, and he’s seeing the coverages most defenses dedicated to Woods over the last two seasons. For all intents and purposes, USC is a running team in 2013. Lee’s numbers show that. Through four games last season, he had 457 receiving yards and six touchdowns on his way to the Biletnikoff Award. This year, he has 293 yards and one touchdown. With that being said, we’re still talking about one of the most dynamic players in all of college football, and he’s still always one touch away from breaking a game open.
Lockman: With a different quarterback, or perhaps even Kessler with better protection, I would say Lee has a greater impact. But with as much pressure as Kessler has faced already and is sure to face this Saturday, and the fact that he hasn’t found a rhythm with Lee yet, we’re in agreement on Strong. He and Taylor Kelly have quickly formed a potent connection. Kelly targeted Strong 19 times against Stanford, and Strong caught 12 passes for 168 yards. Most of Strong’s numbers (24 receptions, 330 yards, two touchdowns) have come against Wisconsin and Stanford, two teams with very good defenses. Lee’s have come against lesser defenses. ASU couldn’t contain Lee in Los Angeles last season even with bracket coverage, but that should be more doable this year without Matt Barkley around to get him the ball. Strong will be the first big test USC’s secondary faces, and I believe he’s primed for another impressive performance. 4. There seems to be sort of a must-win feeling about this game for both teams in the Pac-12 South race, specifically for Lane Kiffin in terms of job security and for ASU in terms of getting a win before next week’s big game against Notre Dame. Who needs a victory more this week?
Haylock: Neither of these teams wants to fall to 0-2 in conference, with a loss putting a serious damper on that team’s chances to win the South. USC needs this win badly. After ASU, the Trojans are home against Arizona on a Thursday night and at Notre Dame, both teams they lost to last season. A loss in Tempe could be the start to the season spiraling out of control. A win could inject some (not much, but some) enthusiasm into a unhappy fan base. There was an announced attendance of 63,482 at the Coliseum last Saturday, but according to the eye test, there couldn’t have been more than 85,000 fans combined for the last two home games. The further Kiffin and USC can get away from the home loss to Washington State, the better. A win in Tempe obviously helps. A loss just gets people talking about it again.
Lockman: This is a tough call. From a here-and-now standpoint, I think both teams need it just as bad so as not to risk falling behind in the Pac-12 South race this early. USC does have a slightly tougher schedule the rest of the way, so winning this one would be big, but ASU losing would put the Sun Devils at risk of losing three straight, which could be a confidence crusher. So in the overall season sense, I don’t think one team needs it more than the other. But in the program sense, USC definitely needs it more. Given the tenor around the program already, a loss would turn the heat up on Kiffin big-time. And, as Rahshaun noted, a defeat could also be the beginning of the end for the Trojans this season. ASU, meanwhile, could at least endure a loss. It would put the Sun Devils under the gun for the rest of the season, but Todd Graham’s job wouldn’t come into question, and the fan base wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be clamoring for change.
5. Who is going to win this game, by what score, and why?
Haylock: Arizona State 22, USC 17. Even when I thought this could potentially be a 10-win season for the Trojans given the favorable schedule, the last Saturday of September in Tempe was a game I had them losing. Through four games, the defense has looked like one of the best the program has seen in years, and that doesn’t to appear to be a fluke. That group will do enough to keep USC in the game. However, the offense has to find a way to score some points, and that’s been a struggle this season. It’s hard to imagine things just all of a sudden clicking in a tough atmosphere on a Saturday night in Tempe.
Lockman: This is probably the toughest game to predict yet, but I’ve got to go with ASU by a score of 31-17. I was higher on USC before the season, but the loss to Washington State makes me think I was giving the Trojans too much credit. USC should be able to get some things going on the ground, but not the way Wisconsin and Stanford did against the Sun Devils the last two weeks. And a thus-far ineffective passing game will once again be a problem. Perhaps more than anything though, I believe ASU’s offense will expose USC’s defense for what it really is: improved but not fourth-best in the nation. Utah State was a tough offensive test, but ASU will be far tougher. The Sun Devils’ tempo and variety of weapons will test that defense in all facets. ASU scored 32 on Wisconsin and 28 on Stanford, so it should be able to hang 30 on USC.