No. 16 USC's defense eager for Arizona State test
LOS ANGELES (AP) Two games into Southern California's conference schedule, the 16th-ranked Trojans still don't know if they're ready to defend the explosive spread offenses found throughout the Pac-12.
That's because the Trojans (3-1, 2-0) began their Pac-12 slate against Stanford and Oregon State. Both schools operate more traditional schemes that feature fullbacks and tight ends - setups that play to the strengths of USC's defensive personnel.
Arizona State (3-1, 1-1), led by running back D.J. Foster and receiver Jaelen Strong, represents more of a test coming into the Coliseum on Saturday.
The Sun Devils rank ninth in the FBS in total offense (560.8 yards per game) and are tied for 16th in scoring offense (42 points per game) with a balanced approach that combines a wide-open passing game with option run concepts, forcing opposing defenses to account for the entire field.
''They pretty much run everything,'' linebacker Scott Felix said.
Bouncing back from a shocking loss at Boston College, USC showed against the Beavers it had learned lessons from that defensive meltdown that could carry over against the rest of the conference. When Oregon State twice ran its trademark fly sweep, the Trojans held the perimeter and came away with two tackles for loss.
Continued development from hybrid safety/linebacker Su'a Cravens also gave USC a disruptive and aggressive presence that had been lacking against Boston College.
Cravens has been playing closer to the line of scrimmage, allowing him to capitalize on his instincts and athleticism. Against Oregon State, he had a team-high six tackles with one sack and returned an interception for a touchdown.
''I like being close to the ball and I like making plays, so I can't complain,'' Cravens said of his new role.
Now the challenge is to bring Cravens up to speed in playing with USC's nickel personnel so he can stay on the field as often as possible.
And while Cravens refused to say whether he now views himself as a linebacker or defensive back, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said the sophomore is the archetypal safety, meeting the demands modern offenses present.
''The strong safety position in college football has become what Su'a is doing because of the style of play that you see,'' Wilcox said. ''He is down at the line of scrimmage, playing the flat, blitzing. That's what strong safeties do. It doesn't look like it does 20 years ago.''
But even Arizona State might not provide USC with a complete picture of how it fares against Pac-12 spread offenses operated by mobile quarterbacks, as Taylor Kelly (foot) is not expected to play for the second consecutive game.
Senior Mike Bercovici is on track to make his second career start, and while he passed for 488 yards and three touchdowns in a 62-27 loss to UCLA, he does not pose the same rushing threat as Kelly.
Bercovici carried the ball five times for 19 yards against the Bruins, not counting one sack. Kelly has 1,316 career yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.
''He'll keep it every once in a while to keep you honest, because if you turn your shoulders, he is going to keep it and get a pretty good gain,'' Felix said of Bercovici.
When asked if his defense is ready for the challenge ahead, Wilcox said: ''We'll find out.''