Rob Malara

Sun Devil Schedule Study: USC


2014 Record: 9-4 (6-3 Pac-12 South) Match-up

2016 NFL Draft Prospects:  offensive tackle Zach Banner, outside linebacker/safety Su’a Cravens, quarterback Cody Kessler, center Max Tuerk

The more things change for the Trojans (finally pulling away from the nearing 85 scholarships), the more they stay the same with a team that will rely heavily on the play of one of the premier quarterbacks in the country supported by a roster full of four and five-star recruits.

The scholarship point, can’t be stressed enough.  It’s one thing to have recruiting classes pulling in Top-5 rankings year-in and year-out (totaling 25 NFL Draft selections over the past five years), but it’s another thing to have a two-deep full of players with a scout team to back that up.  And for the last five years, USC has really struggled against physical teams and with injury woes due to its inability to field 85 scholarship players like every other school in the country.

This year things are different for the men of Troy.  As head coach Steve Sarkisian moves into his second season with the Trojans his team seems way more prepared on both sides of the ball to take on opponents in the Pac-12 South, arguably the toughest divisions in college football.  As a result of a replenished depth chart, USC was chosen as the favorite to win the 2015 Pac-12 Conference football title in a preseason media poll by conducted during Pac-12 Media Days, receiving 46% of the vote by the 45 participants in attendance.  It represented the third time in five years that the Trojans had been selected by the media to win the Pac-12 South division.

When asking ASU fans who the most overrated team is in-conference, they’ll more than likely say it’s USC.  Since this website was created, USC has constantly been the team on social media that fans have identified as one who has been unable to achieve the success that matched the recruiting classes signed each and every February.  

When you add the success Todd Graham has had against the Trojans (winning two of the three games) since taking over after the 2011 season, you start to see a trend.  ASU has won the last two contests, including the last season’s pinnacle Jail Mary thriller at the Coliseum, as well as the 62-41 thrashing in 2013 ending the Lane Kiffin regime in Los Angeles.  No small feat considering USC had beaten the Devils in each game played between the two the decade prior.

A total of ten NFL draft picks were selected between these two sides during the 2015 NFL Draft, including three first day selections.  So it’s safe to say Sarkisian has gotten the talent back up to snuff on his team as he transitions from the Lane Kiffen era, but is the Trojans coaching staff prepared to get the best out of a team that plays only two of its preseason ranked top-25 opponents at the Colosseum this season?  All of which leads us to the 2015 game between these two teams.  Road contests being the Achilles heel of the 2014 squad that dropped games against Boston College, Utah, and UCLA totalling three of its four losses away from the friendly confines.

USC will be playing its fourth game of the season in Tempe at the end of September coming off the heals of their conference opener against a Stanford looking to get back on its feet after a disappointing 2014.  While the Trojans defeated the Cardinal on the road last season, they traveled the next week to play Boston College and laid one of the worst eggs in their school’s recent history, losing 37-31 to an Eagles team that would win just six more games the rest of the season.

What to look for from the Trojans on offense

2014 S&P+ Offense: 112.8 (24th in FBS)

2015 Returning Starters Offense: 7

Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 60% (71th in FBS)

Career Starts Offensive Line: 99 (9th in FBS)


The offense returns senior quarterback Cody Kessler, going into his third season as the starter, looking to add his name to the pantheon of six Trojans to have won the Heisman Trophy (would tie Ohio State and Notre Dame for most ever).  The numbers he put up in Sarkisian’s new offense were eye-popping no doubt.  Not only was he accurate in USCs quick strike, short passing attack, but he was downright lethal throwing the deep ball.  

According to Pro Football Focus, ‏Kessler not only had the highest Accuracy Percentage in the nation last year at 80.3%, but he also finished with the second best deep-ball accuracy percentage.  In the Pac-12, he was second to Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in yards-per-attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio. And while he took a while adjusting to the new offense, he caught on fire when conference play began with the clunker against the UCLA showing as the only blemish on his junior season.

While Kessler wasn’t always perfect (sacked 32 times, 4-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio against top-25 opponents, and was more than  overly cautious at times on third down), the Trojans need him to be the glue that holds the offense together, at least early on as the new personnel gel together on offense.

Running back Buck Allen and his nearly 2,000 yards of total offense will be playing on Sundays this fall.  Add all-conference wideout Nelson Agholor (caught twice as many balls as any other Trojan), the sure-handed George Farmer (caught 80% of all passes thrown his way), and Randall Telfer to a list that comprises 55% of Kessler’s targeted receivers needing to be replaced in 2015.  But things don’t get any easier for a Sun Devils secondary when you look at how USC will matchup against the Devils at Sun Devil Stadium.    

For Kessler, the offense doesn’t need to rebuild as much as reload. Sophomore receiver JuJu Smith was really good last season as a debutant (52 receptions / 5 touchdowns) and looks the part of the next great Trojans receiver.  He’ll have a supporting cast full of four and five-star players like two-way super soph Adoree’ Jackson, not to mention an offensive line grabbing a lot of accolades in preseason watch lists.  And that’s worth discussing further as the Trojans offensive line last year was really green outside of all-conference center Max Tuerk.

The offensive line had its ups and downs in 2014, especially in terms of run blocking, which lead to mixed results in games due to its lack of consistency.  This really helped to put a stress on the defense that while good against the run and in the red zone, tended to wear down against teams with top offenses that kept it on the field more often than not.  But the coaching staff is expecting nothing but growth from a group that saw six underclassmen of its seven players to start a game a year ago.  Not to mention Steve Sarkisian teams always have at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past five seasons.

If Kessler can stay as consistent in the short passing game while working to become more aggressive as a downfield passer, if his spring progression is any evidence, it should start to make a lot more room for the run game in 2015 as defenses are forced to be more honest. Justin Davis and Tre Madden will shoulder most of the workload in the run game unless Roland Jones II continues the trend of outstanding true freshmen for the Trojans.

What to look for from the Trojans on defense

2014 S&P+ Defense: 111.3 (32th in FBS)

2014 Havoc Rate: 0.168 (44th in FBS)

Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 63% (61st in FBS)

2015 Returning Starters Defense: 7


Much like the offensive line, the defensive line returns buckets of experience and talent once you get past the loss of of Leonard Williams who went sixth overall to the Jets back in April.  And let’s just get this out of the way, USC will not replace the experience and output this year brought forth by both Williams and fellow draftee Hayes Pullard at linebacker.  But that doesn’t mean they can’t shuffle the deck and deal out some new cards.

What second year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will have is more depth (the best recruiting class in the Pac-12 in back-to-back cycles) and additional veterans in Kenny Bigelow and Claude Pelon to add to the seven returning starters coming back from 2014.  This defense has a bit of everything, not to mention two bigtime superstars in outside linebacker / safety Su’a Cravens (who played nearly everywhere for Wilcox in ‘14) and cornerback Jackson.  Each just might be the best player in the conference at their position, wherever that is, at any point they lineup there.

Cravens is a do-it-all player who is equally adept playing the run as he is defending the pass.  He also totalled 5 sacks and 15 pressures, so Wilcox will bring him

Few match-ups will be more exciting than how ASU and its veteran interior line of Nick Kelly, Christian Westerman, and Vi Teofilo perform against this up-and-coming young defense.  If this threesome can hold true to all the superlatives laid on them from head coach Todd Graham, this could end up being a game decided in the trenches.

Final Synopsis

Golden Nugget Casino early line: USC -1

Sun Devil fans are hoping the latest version of this Trojans team is similar to the 2012 USC that was the top ranked team in the pre-season only to fall completely flat on their face.  They’ll need to have learned play to play more consistent in order for them to make it through the gauntlet that is Pac-12 play and make it unscathed through the College Football Playoff.  While it’s not easy this day and age to go 15-0, they certainly have the talent to do it.  But can the coaching staff take the next step with this team?  Lane Kiffen faced the same dilemma, considered a great young strategist but just didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to take the flag and run from the Carroll years.

With a veteran quarterback, a star emerging at receiver, and young and talented offensive line the offense could be College Football Playoff quality.  But whether or not the Trojans defense comes off that Stanford game ready to play against the likes Mike Norvell’s multi-dimensional offense will be one of the biggest questions in this game.

Adoree’ Jackson is one of those rare players who can change a football game in all three phases, let alone having the ability to silence Sun Devil Stadium on one play.  Whether it’s a big return, catching a pass in space and breaking it for a touchdown, or shutting down the Devils pass game, ASU is going to want to put a cap on him as best as possible.  Yet another special teams challenge for Shawn Slocum, the newest coach on the staff in charge of preventing that very thing from happening.

Sun Devil fans will remember that the last time the Trojans played in Tempe, Lane Kiffin played the role of Fredo only to have been metaphorically kissed on the mouth by Todd Graham reminiscent of the scene in Godfather II only to be put out of his misery on the flight back to Los Angeles.  Can Graham squeeze another win out against the Trojans and make it three out of four?  If so, it would certainly be a marquee win for the 2015 to go in its portfolio as it takes another run at the College Football Playoff.


**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”

**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”

**Graphs provided by ASU Devils Den stats guru Gary Doran**

About Rob Malara

Rob Malara

Rob Malara is a 2002 Sun Devil grad having spent the majority of his time in Tempe as a football, basketball, and baseball season ticket holder and front row inhabitant. A member of the Football Writers Association of America, he hosted the ASU Devils podcast and was its sub-optimal technical producer through its lifespan. Currently the president of the ASU Alumni Association's Northern Colorado Club, he is part of a family of maroon and gold residing in Fort Collins with his Sun Devil wife and nearby Sun Devil sister.

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