It’s admittedly premature to label an early-October college football game as a “must-win” for any team, but Saturday’s Pac-12 South showdown between Arizona State and 16th-ranked USC could be one for the Sun Devils.
The defending division champions were manhandled 62-27 by UCLA last Thursday night in Tempe and suffering a second Pac-12 loss would make defending their crown nearly impossible.
Earning that win won’t be easy.
For starters, Arizona State hasn’t won a game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 1999 and are 4-10 in that building all-time.
The Sun Devils will be playing their second straight game without quarterback Taylor Kelly, who injured his left foot in a win over Colorado Sept. 13. Mike Bercovici, who threw for 488 yards in his first collegiate start vs. UCLA, will be at the controls once again for ASU. But he’ll be facing a stout USC defense that is coming off a very impressive performance in a win over Oregon State last week. The Trojans held prolific Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion to a career-low 123 yards in a 35-10 win.
USC comes into the game ranked 41st in the nation in total defense — a ranking skewed by a bad game in a loss to Boston College. In their other three games, the Trojans are yielding an average of 303.7 yards and 8.7 points to opposing offenses (Oregon State scored a touchdown on a kickoff return).
And while everyone is talking about the Trojans’ defense, their offense is doing some pretty good things as well. Quarterback Cody Kessler, who is not normally mentioned among the top signal callers in the Pac-12, is having a banner season. The junior is completing 72 percent of his passes, has 10 touchdowns and has yet to throw a pick.
Then there are the running backs. Junior Javorius “Buck” Allen and sophomore Justin Davis have combined for 575 yards and four touchdowns on 121 carries this season. USC’s young, physical offensive line anchored by center Max Tuerk and his 24 career starts, will be matched up against an even younger defensive front for Arizona State.
What to watch for
• ASU’s tackling and positioning – The Sun Devils got into trouble early on defense against UCLA. Often, players had difficulty getting into position on time against the hurry-up attack of the Bruins. Pace shouldn’t be as big a factor against USC, but the Trojans have shown the ability to play an up-tempo style at times. In their opener against Fresno State, USC ran a school-record 105 plays. The very next week against Stanford, they won while running only 59 plays.
Regardless of the pace of the game, tackling is an issue for the Sun Devils. In head coach Todd Graham’s own words, it was “atrocious” against UCLA. It simply has to get better against a talented USC for the Devils to have a chance to win.
• More D.J. – ASU’s D.J. Foster, the Pac-12’s leading rusher, was a non-factor against UCLA. The dynamic junior only touched the ball 14 times against the Bruins after averaging almost 22 in the first three games of the season. Of course, a lot of that is incumbent on the Devils evening out their play selection. Against UCLA, ASU threw the ball nearly 66 percent of the time. In their first three games, the Sun Devils ran 60 percent of the time.
• Chunk plays – In their last two games, the Sun Devils have allowed eight plays of 40 or more yards, including three 80+ yard plays against UCLA. After Eldridge Massington’s 80-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter, ASU’s defense looked demoralized. Southern California’s offense, on the other hand, hasn’t exactly been a big play factory. The Trojans have only five plays of 40 or more yards all season. If USC can get three or more explosive plays, ASU’s young defense might starting doubting themselves all over again.
• Revenge vs. Redemption – The last time these two teams got together, ASU hung a historically embarrassing loss on the Trojans. Just hours after the Devils’ 62-42 win, head coach Lane Kiffin was fired in a parking lot and refused transport back to campus. It was that bad. Steve Sarkisian is now the man in charge for USC, but plenty of players who suffered that loss last October in Tempe are still in L.A. You get the feeling they not only want to win, but win big.
For ASU, Saturday’s game presents an opportunity to show the country that the UCLA game was an anomaly. After the blowout, the Sun Devils plummeted 11 spots and all the way out of the top 25. It was a devastating loss, no doubt, but a fall that far in the polls is almost unprecedented when a loss comes to a highly-ranked conference foe. A loss to USC takes Arizona State out of contention for the Pac-12 South. A win puts them right back in the thick of the race with seven games remaining.
Some things to keep in mind
• USC is the only team in the country yet to yield a touchdown pass this season (115 attempts). Opposing quarterbacks have a passer efficiency rating of 85.4 against USC, the sixth-best mark in the country.
• ASU is ranked 94th in the country in total defense, allowing 442.5 yards per game. The Sun Devils rank 115th in pass efficiency defense, allowing opposing quarterbacks a rating of 153.71. They have also allowed nine touchdown passes in their first four games.
• USC is 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 2007 and the 44th time in school history.
• Arizona State safety Demarious Randall is leading the nation in solo tackles, racking up 9.0 per game.
• Kessler is tied for fourth in the nation in completion percentage (72%). Only one Pac-12 quarterback — UCLA’s Brett Hundley (72.1%) — ranks higher than Kessler.
• Despite ranking 90th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 30.8 points per game, Arizona State has had only three kickoff returns all season. Only TCU (two kickoff returns) has fewer.
• ASU has outscored opponents 63-13 in the first quarter this season and 341-152 in 31 games under Graham.