This week, the Arizona State Sun Devils travel to Southern California for their first conference road trip of the season. The USC Trojans are coming off of a loss to Utah, and are 1-3 this season against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Despite ASU’s superior record, the S&P+ ratings at footballstudyhall.com give USC a 68% chance winning, with a projected margin of victory of 8.2 points, making this the Sun Devils’ toughest test of the year.
USC is a different kind of opponent from what ASU has faced so far this season. First, they’re clearly the most talented team on the schedule so far. Second, despite having some spread elements in their offense, USC is no Air Raid team. Their offensive pace ranks 101st in the nation, and they run on 55-percent of standard downs – not a particularly high percentage, but much higher than the Air Raid teams. Third, they don’t have an experienced quarterback – redshirt freshman Sam Darnold will be making only his second career start against ASU. Last, ASU will be facing a significantly better defense than they have all year – USC’s defensive S&P+ rating ranks 32nd, whereas both Texas Tech and Cal ranked in the 100s. With a different type of opponent, this week’s Three Tines to Victory will look a little difference as well.
First Tine to Victory: Control the line of scrimmage
Despite the lopsided margin of defeat, ASU actually controlled the line of scrimmage against USC last year, averaging 5.2 yards/carry while USC only averaged 2.4. Winning the line of scrimmage like this and losing, let alone getting blown out, especially against a team like USC, is an anomaly. If ASU can repeat this part of last year’s performance, they should be in good shape.
Sam Darnold brings a dual threat element to USC’s offense, which proved to be effective last week against Utah. With him at quarterback, USC needs to be balanced, which they were, averaging 6.5 yards/carry with 213 yards rushing, and 9.7 yards/pass with 253 passing yards against the Utes. However, the Utah defense stiffened in the fourth quarter, causing some negative plays in the run game and putting Darnold in some third-and-long situations that he was not able to convert. If ASU can limit the effectiveness of the USC run game, like Utah did in the fourth quarter, Darnold is unlikely to be able to carry the offense with only his passing.
The other side of the ball is a mirror image. Manny Wilkins is a dual threat himself, who is at his best in the passing game when the threat of the run is present. ASU needs to be successful on first and second down, and avoid too many passing down situations. The easiest way to do this is with the run game. This is doable against USC, as they don’t have a dominant front seven like they have in the past. They’re mediocre against the run, giving up 4.7 yards/carry, which ranks 84th in FBS.
Second Tine to Victory: Win the turnover battle
In last season’s loss, ASU was -2 in turnovers, which was a major factor in the game. The nature of the turnovers was especially costly, with the fumble near the goal line being a 14 point turnaround. Against a team with superior talent, ASU cannot expect to win if they make costly mistakes like this. Manny Wilkins needs to be careful with the ball, especially since USC has better athletes in the secondary than what he’s faced so far.
On defense, ASU may need to create some turnovers to pull out a win in the Coliseum. Fortunately, USC is playing a freshman quarterback making only his second start, and historically, these are the situations where Todd Graham’s defenses are successful. If ASU can pressure experienced quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Davis Webb into throwing costly interceptions, the chances are good that Sam Darnold will make some mistakes himself. This is why controlling the line of scrimmage is important – it increases the opportunity to get turnovers on defense while limiting the need to make risky throws on offense.
Third Tine to Victory: Red zone success
Red zone efficiency is one of the biggest reasons that ASU has been able to improve its performance in close games over last year. The Sun Devils rank 14th in finishing drives (points per trip inside the 40), and have a power success rate (how often they convert third-and-short, fourth-and-short, and goal line situations) of 88.5%, which ranks 6th. Last season, the Sun Devils ranked 63rd and 69th in these categories, respectively. This week’s game will be a test to see if this improvement is real, or just a mirage created by facing some really weak run defenses.
Just like in turnovers, ASU cannot expect to win a road game against a team with superior talent while wasting trips into the red zone. ASU’s defense is unlikely to shut down the USC offense, so the offense will need to be able to put points on the board, and three points at a time probably won’t cut it. Zane Gonzalez figures to be a big factor as well. Being able to steal three points on a couple drives that barely get into USC territory could be big in a close game.
If ASU is successful in all three of these areas, they probably win pretty handily, which, to be honest, is not very likely. If ASU does win, it will probably be because they did well in two of the three, and the margin of victory will be small. This is a doable task for this ASU team, and a win here will tell us a lot about whether or not ASU will be a real contender for the Pac-12 South title.
For more preview information on USC, be sure to check out Gary Doran’s Advanced Stats 12-Pac.