The Sun Devils (2-1, 0-0) kick off the Pac-12 portion of their 2015 schedule tonight when they face-off against the No. 19 ranked USC Trojans (2-1, 0-1) at Sun Devil Stadium. Head coach Todd Graham looks to make it three in a row against the Trojans having won each of the last two contests vastly different fashions , be it the 2013 62-41 drubbing or the 2014 last second 38-34 Jael Mary thriller. But both teams will enter Saturday night still looking to knock off the early season cobwebs.
USC will be playing their first road tilt of the season on the heels of a disappointing 41-31 loss last week to the visiting Stanford Cardinal. The Trojans offense, ranked number one overall in Football Outsiders Offensive S&P+ was firing on all cylinders through the first 10 quarters of the season before shooting blanks in the second half of last week’s game. With the offense running adrift, the USC defense provided little help having run a streak of eight straight quarters without forcing a turnover going into this week’s game.
#19 USC (-5.5) vs ASU
First Tine of the Game: Staying on Schedule
The Devils have struggled to hit the big play so far in 2015, second to last among all teams in conference with just 10 plays of 20 yards or more. As we detailed last week, some of this has been due to injuries and the shutting of senior D.J. Foster from receiver to running back and vice versa with sophomore Kalen Ballage out of the lineup. Part of it has been due to the poor play on the offensive line especially at the tackle position.
Due to these struggles, Mike Bercovici has completed 80-percent of his throws to receivers going for 15 yards or less. Knowing this the USC pass defense
Last week USC failed at forging any consistent pressure on Stanford’s senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, and he made them pay, completing over 78-percent of his passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns.
Ultimately, the Trojans did indeed blitz more than they had in their previous two games of ‘15 and significantly more than they did against Hogan in ‘14, resulting in three sacks, but those take downs were basically it. And while they were quite successful at disguising their blitzes out of their base 3-4 set, Hogan was able to either throw from a clean pocket or make plays with his legs down field to thwart the Trojans.
At the end of the day the Trojans just couldn’t get off the field against the Cardinal. They were however able to do so against ASU at the Coliseum last year with the Devils only able to convert 3 of 12 third downs. It was however the Devils ability to piece together drives not by running the ball (averaged 1.4 yards per rush), but by Bercovici completing passes down field to the likes 5 different receivers who caught at least 1 pass of 20 yards or more in the game.
Things could improve from a personnel standpoint this week if ASU is able to get anything positive out of the likes of injured running backs Kalen Ballage and De’Chavon Hayes.
If ASU is able to establish a running game through the likes of sophomore Demario Richard to keep the defense honest and get the crowd into the game, it can allow Bercovici more time to get into rhythm in the passing game. If Richard can mimic the production Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey had last week, it will also allow the offense to run tempo and really start to wear down a USC defense that rarely rotated against the Cardinal.
Second Tine of the Game: Hoping for bad Juju
While it surely isn’t the strength of Mike Norvell’s offense, the offensive coordinator would be smart to look at how the Cardinal played keep away from Cody Kessler in the second half of last week’s game with the Trojans only possessing the ball for nine minutes. Playing from behind, it forced the Trojans to play catch-up and one-dimensional offensively during that time, and that played right into the hands of the Stanford defense.
And while they didn’t have the ball much, sophomore Juju Smith-Schuster was able to keep up with his torrid start to the season catching eight passes from Kessler for 153 yards and a touchdown.
This is what promises to be one of the key one-on-one match-ups of the game as Smith-Schuster, one of the most explosive wide receivers in the country will be covered at times by the Devils cornerback Lloyd Carrington, the best pass defender on the team now in his second year as a full-time starter.
For Carrington, the task is mighty against a receiver that possesses uber athleticism and open field explosion. But the senior defender has the ability to cancel out some of Smith-Schuster’s effectiveness by keeping his hands on the young receiver, playing physical, and keeping true to his technique.
Third Tine of the Game: Pressure on Kessler
Make no mistake about it, Smith-Schuster is a threat for a couple of long touchdowns in this game if ASU fails to get to Kessler in the pocket. There’s just no way of getting around the fact that Graham runs a high-risk / high-reward defense that has certainly seen its ups and downs in big games over the last few years.
USC will want to test an ASU secondary that will be continuing to break newcomers at the field safety position, with true freshman Kareem Orr being put to the test for the second week in a row as sophomore Armand Perry is still recovering from a foot injury. If Orr can hold his own in man coverage against one of the best sets of receivers in the Pac-12, it will allow a developing defensive line more time to disrupt Kessler.
With the way the offense has been playing up until the second half of the New Mexico game last week, it would have to take a monumental step to show it has the firepower to keep up with this vaunted Trojans offense. That’s why it’s imperative for the defense the blitz early and often to try to force turnovers, the staple of any Todd Graham game plan. Looking for some historical backing on this? ASU is 8-1 (with its only loss coming in it’s season opening loss to Texas A&M) since the start of 2014 when it finishes a game positive in the takeaway / giveaway category.
Check out Gary Doran’s statistical preview of this game written earlier in the week, as well as our pre-season write-ups on the Trojans.