Arizona State risks unbeaten record vs. desperate USC
LOS ANGELES -- Although Southern California's 1-3 start under coach Clay Helton is undeniably dismaying, Trojans fans couldn't find their September stumble through a brutal schedule to be completely surprising.
With unbeaten Arizona State visiting the Coliseum on Saturday, it's time to find out whether Helton is really in trouble.
USC has failed to exceed realistic expectations so far this season, losing away from home to No. 1 Alabama, No. 7 Stanford and No. 18 Utah in the school's worst start since 2001. Helton changed starting quarterbacks after just three games, but the switch from Max Browne to Sam Darnold didn't fix much.
If the Trojans, already 0-2 in Pac-12 play, can't derail Arizona State's promising start, mere postseason eligibility could be a problem for a program that expects to contend for national championships, not minor bowl games.
That's likely to endanger the job of Helton, who is already in a tricky situation with new athletic director Lynn Swann. Helton, the well-liked veteran assistant, was promoted last year to the top job -- and given a lavish multiyear contract -- by AD Pat Haden, who subsequently left.
"You know the expectations going into this job," Helton said. "If you don't welcome that, you're at the wrong place. I welcome it."
Those expectations demand that Helton's Trojans awake from their slow start to contend with the high-powered Sun Devils (4-0, 1-0), who would be off to their best start since 2007 with another victory.
Coach Todd Graham's quick-strike offense is averaging nearly 49 points per game for new offensive coordinator Manny Wilkins, with 16 rushing touchdowns already this season.
Here are some things to know about the Sun Devils' visit to the Coliseum:
JAEL MARY: The last time Arizona State visited the Coliseum two years ago, the Sun Devils stunned the Trojans with a 38-34 victory on Jaelen Strong's 46-yard Hail Mary TD catch from Mike Bercovici as time expired. Arizona State scored three touchdowns in the final 3:53 to beat Steve Sarkisian's Trojans, with Bercovici passing for 510 yards and five scores. The victory was the Sun Devils' first at the venerable Coliseum since 1999. "I would be a liar if I didn't tell you that was a great memory of mine," Graham said. "That will always be special moment to me, and I would love to go create another one."
DARNOLD DEBUTS: Darnold makes his first start at the Coliseum after getting promoted last week. Helton yanked the job from junior Max Browne after only three starts, and Darnold went 18 of 26 for 253 yards and no touchdowns in USC's loss at Utah. Darnold's mobility and playmaking knack stood out to Helton, but the freshman could use another strong performance to cement his new role. "I think we have the guys," Darnold said. "We have the weapons. We just need to execute and not turn the ball over."
DEFENSE DIP: While Arizona State's offense is humming, the defense has been discordant. The Sun Devils yielded 55 points to Texas Tech, 41 to California and 28 to Texas-San Antonio. They rank in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in most statistical categories, and Graham is hoping for improvement against the Trojans' talent-stacked offense. "I think that we are probably trying to do too much early in the season for where we're at," Graham said. "We're trying to find where that happy medium is, because you can't be just completely simple. You have to be able to execute what you're trying to execute. I think we're figuring out what we can do."
ADOREE'S TURN: Helton expects speedy defensive back Adoree Jackson to get more playing time on offense against the Sun Devils. The two-way star hasn't caught a pass this season, and he carried the ball for the first time last week.