By James Romo for DieHardDevil.com
ASU heads to the Land of Troy this weekend for its second consecutive road game and a match up with a traditional west coast rival. If you took a poll of ASU fans, USC is probably the second most hated opponent on the Sun Devils schedule every year. It could be their recent success, arrogance, or the fact that the ASU roster is typically loaded with players from Southern California. But make no mistake about it, these teams are chomping at the bit to get after one another on the field. ASU has dropped three straight games, and SC has uncharacteristically surrendered huge offensive games in consecutive losses to Arizona and Oregon. Bad intentions will run rampant on Saturday, and big plays, big hits, and big statements will be made on the LA Coliseum turf.
USC will run the only true pro-style offense that ASU will face this season. The Trojans are armed with unquestionably the most gifted and explosive receiving core in the country with Marquise Lee, Robert Woods, and Nelson Agholor. Oh, and the guy throwing to them was the odds on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy coming into the season. QB Matt Barkley has thrown for 2,750 yards and 30 touchdowns with an average of 305.6 yards/game through nine games this season. Lee averages 142.9 yards receiving/game with a 14.6 yards/catch average on 1286 yards with 12 touchdown grabs. Woods averages 11.1 yards/game with an 11.1 yards/catch average on 656 yards and 10 touchdowns. In other words, tons of firepower on offense. After getting blistered against the OSU receivers last week, the ASU secondary will have more than their hands full this week against USC. Much of the Trojan passing attack is set up by the rushing of (Penn State transfer) Silas Redd who averages 5.4 yards/carry and does his part in both chewing up yardage and keeping opposing defenses honest. SC does a great job of using play-action passing to keep defenses off balance. So look for ASU to up the ante with blitz packages to disrupt timing between Barkley and his receivers. That will create a delicate balance while also spending a lot of time in zone coverages to limit single coverages on the SC receivers and to eliminate man-to-man mismatches on slot receivers and backfield personnel on wheel routes and short routes into the flats. Sounds like a lot to handle? It will be.
Head Coach Lane Kiffin has been forthright regarding his interior offensive line underperforming this season, as SC has had trouble keeping defenders out of their backfield. This plays into the hands of the ASU front seven who rank second in the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss. A healthy Will Sutton will command a double-team, and that should free up one-on-one mismatches for Carl Bradford and Chris Young on the edges. USC Tackles Matt Tuerk and Kevin Graf have been great in pass protection, so look for the battles on the edges between ASU’s dynamic pass rush and the Trojan offensive line. Maintaining outside contain will be a must again this week with Redd being able to break off big runs if he gets the corner. Last week, the Devils had way too many individual missed assignments on defense that led to big plays. Discipline, solid tackling, and premium on limiting explosive plays are paramount if ASU wants to stay in this slug fest. For an Arizona State secondary who will be relying a ton on their front seven to create pressure, they will also have to do their part in disrupting timing routes with aggressive jamming of receivers at the line and disguising coverage shells.
On Defense, the Trojans operate out of a traditional 4-3 front and have speed to burn at every position. With that being said, they have had an extremely tough time slowing down well executed spread offenses. In the past two weeks alone, they have given up 588 and 730 yards respectively to Arizona and Oregon. The major difference between those teams and ASU is the production from their receiving core that the Devils just haven’t been able to muster from their outside guys. It’s a must for ASU to try to replicate the same tempo that Arizona and Oregon used to keep the Trojan defense both on their heels, and without time to substitute their preferred personnel in certain situations. In losses to both UCLA and OSU, it appeared that the Devils offense was able to move the ball with greater success when they went into a fast tempo mode. Crowd noise may limit the ability of QB Taylor Kelly to get plays called in a hurry at the line, but the quicker they can get plays off before allowing SC defenders to get set, the more of an advantage they will have. Look for ASU to exploit the flats and horizontal routes to spread the Trojan defense going east and west. The lack of north and south passing game to this point could potentially open up in the form of seam/post routes this week if they can use misdirection on the talented Trojan safeties. At 6-3 and 205, senior safety TJ McDonald is cut from the same cloth as former Trojan standout Taylor Mays. He’s big, rangy, and brings the hammer to would be receivers over the middle. But he has also been caught out of position against zone read teams frequently while trying to read plays at their mesh point. Taylor Kelly will also have to do a good job of carrying out play fakes and making proper reads on defensive ends Wes Horton and Morgan Breslin.
There is no question that the last three Sun Devil opponents have been a considerable step up in talent from teams in the early part of the schedule. That talent, in combination with learning the ASU strengths, have resulted in successful game planning against what ASU had been so lethal with early on. Oregon, UCLA, and OSU have been able to shrink down the areas of the field where ASU has found its most success in the passing game. The underneath routes that Chris Coyle, DJ Foster, and Marion Grice (out of the backfield) roamed freely in have been all but shut down by linebackers getting deep in their drops and safeties being able to allow their corners to single-cover the ASU receivers and roam freely in the middle of the field. The only way to open that space back up is to keep linebackers tight to the line of scrimmage to stop the ASU run game. Heavy doses of Cameron Marshall between the tackles should keep WLB Hayes Pullard and SLB Dion Bailey out of the flat, or at the very least create a decided advantage for Chris Coyle and DJ Foster releasing into passing routes on play action.
Ultimately, the ASU outside receivers are going to have to show up and make plays down field. The SC corners have shown to be very beatable in man coverage, and forcing safeties to offer help over the top will allow for ASU to take advantage of what they do best. Kelly will be able to extend plays and find open receivers underneath if all goes as planned. I foresee ASU taking some early shots down field, if for no other reason than to extend the field vertically to give the SC defense and coaching staff something to think about.
The circus that was the ASU kicking game last season has extended its stay through the 2012 season. If whoever gets the nod to attempt field goals this week can shake their nerves in a hostile Coliseum environment, it will only help give the Devils a much needed opportunity to win. Josh Hubner did a great job of pinning OSU deep in its own territory last week, but Arizona State was unable to capitalize on multiple short field possessions. The cover teams are going to have to improve over last week as well with USC capable of big plays in their return game. It’s going to be a tough battle to the final whistle. Much of the outcome is going to revolve around where the psyche of each team is after both teams have dropped multiple consecutive games. I don’t believe either team has thrown in the towel on their respective seasons, but momentum has a way of being an even bigger factor for, and against, teams that are coming off of disappointing losses. Once again, these games against talented opponents are winnable. Limiting the big plays, discipline, being fundamentally sound, near flawless execution, and exceeding their opponents intensity level are a must for the Devils to come away with win in LA…All those things and making sure that the Southern Cal footballs are properly inflated.