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September 27, 2013

USC vs. Arizona State preview

Game 5: 'Shout! Shout! Shout! Shout at the Devil!'

The big question in Tempe this weekend: can the USC offense find the consistency and production that its stellar defense needs in order to compete for a Pac-12 title?

The USC Trojans (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12 South) open the road portion of their Pac-12 Conference schedule by visiting the Arizona State Sun Devils (2-1, 0-1) this Saturday, September 28, at 7:30 p.m. PDT in Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium and in front of a national ESPN2 television audience. It's the 30th meeting between the two schools, with USC owning a 19-10 edge, including victories in 12 of the past 13 seasons. The Trojans defeated ASU, 38-17, a season ago in Los Angeles, but the Sun Devils overpowered USC with a strong second-half surge to notch a 43-22 victory in the previous Tempe meeting in 2011.

A week ago, the Trojan defense throttled Utah State star quarterback Chuckie Keeton, sacking him four times and holding him more than 200 yards below his total offense average, in a 17-14 win at the Coliseum. While the USC offense continued to sputter, the Trojans were able to turn a series of second-half opportunities deep in Aggie territory into a lone Andre Heidari field goal, which the defense made stand up. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils looked overwhelmed early on, falling behind 29-0 at halftime, at Stanford before a second-half surge left them on the short end of a 42-28 defeat to the No. 5 Cardinal.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (35-20 career collegiate head coaching record; 28-14 at USC) is in his fourth season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. In Tempe, Arizona State headman Todd Graham (59-35 in eight seasons as a collegiate head coach, 10-6 at ASU) is in his second season with the Sun Devils. He's brought a high-powered offensive attack to match with his own aggressive defensive style, bringing new life to the Arizona State program. While hopes are high for the Devils in 2013, a tough early schedule (ASU is in the third of a four-game stretch featuring games against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame) has presented the expected challenges.

Arizona State Offense
Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has spent six years masterminding offenses for Graham and has the Sun Devils' multifaceted passing attack - which utilizes three-, four- and five-wide sets with a variation on the read-option - firing on all cylinders. Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,019 yards, 8 TDs and 4 interceptions through three games. His decision making has been spotty at times, but there's no doubting his talent, his arm and his legs. Sophomore Michael Eubank, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound specimen, sees time nearly every week in short-yardage and goal line situations and is much more of a threat as a ball carrier.

The Devils' running backs are nearly as dangerous as receivers as they are carrying the ball more traditionally. The key talent here is senior Marion Grice, a speedy and physical presence who has 193 yards rushing on 53 attempts and 147 yards receiving on 15 catches. He's scored eight TDs through three games and is truly a multifaceted threat. Junior Deantre Lewis is the only ASU runner with double-digit carries besides Grice and Kelly - he's averaging 6.4 yards per carry on 11 totes and has also caught three passes. Sophomore D.J. Foster, nominally another running back, has caught 19 passes, second on the team, but only carried six times. He's a great outlet for Kelly and has solid open-field skills.

JC transfer Jaelen Strong has been a revelation at receiver for ASU, especially after a huge second-half performance at Stanford. He's a sizeable and physical target, and is averaging 13.8 yards on his team-leading 24 grabs. Richard Smith, a diminutive sophomore, has eight grabs out of the slot, but has suffered from dropped passes - as have many of the Sun Devils receivers. Senior tight end Chris Coyle (six catches, two for TDs) and wideout Kevin Ozier (four grabs, one score) should also factor in.

The Devils' front five is led by senior honors candidates Evan Finkenberg at left tackle and Kody Koebensky at center. ASU's rushing offense has struggled to get moving, as the group hasn't gelled in run blocking, but they've allowed just six sacks through three games. The rest of the starting five includes junior Jamil Douglas (LG), sophomore Vi Teofilo (RG) and junior Tyler Sulka (RT).

Arizona State Defense
Defensive coordinator Paul Randolph had to be thrilled to see his returning group of playmakers - especially in the front seven - when the Devils gathered at Camp Tontozona in August. Though much was expected of the group, Arizona State's defense has struggled mightily against the run and notched just three sacks (after running up 52 in 2012). Though the Devils mix 3-4, 4-3 and 5-2 looks, they've had trouble penetrating the massive offensive lines fielded by Wisconsin and Stanford.

Up front, senior Will Sutton, who was a consensus NFL first-rounder after an incredible 2012 season, thrilled ASU faithful everywhere when he decided to return for the 2013 campaign. But coming off a 13-sack season, Sutton has seen a bevy of double-teams so far this season and has yet to notch a sack among his nine tackles. Junior Jaxon Hood had been a steadying force at nose tackle until leaving the Stanford game with an apparent leg injury. He's doubtful for Saturday and his loss could move senior Gannon Conway inside from his end spot, since the Devils don't have a lot of reliable depth at the nose. If that happens, expect senior Davon Coleman to get the nod at defensive end. He had 11 tackles for loss in 2012 but struggled against the run. Mo Latu, a 380-pounder, is another option to fill the middle.

Continuing his breakout season from 2012, junior Carl Bradford is wreaking havoc from the Devil position, a hybrid defensive end-linebacker spot reminiscent of the "elephant" position Brian Cushing made famous at USC. Bradford has 11 stops (one sack) and is a disrupter (and not only with his mouth, which has been active this week). The Devils rotate a number of players at the other linebacker spots, including senior Chris Young, who leads ASU with 19 tackles. Classmate Anthony Jones (seven tackles) also sees plenty of time, along with redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso (nine stops, 2.5 for loss) who has shown a lot of versatility. Senior Steffon Martin is also a key performer, especially on the strong side.

There is a lot of experience in the ASU secondary, with three seniors - cornerback Orashon Irabor, safety Alden Darby and CB/safety Robert Nelson - leading the way. Sophomores Lloyd Carrington (CB) and Damarious Randall (S) have experienced some growing pains, leading Nelson to start games at both corner and safety as the Devils seek the right mix. Redshirt freshman safetyViliami Moeakiola has been impressive in nickel situations.

Arizona State Special Teams
Freshman Zane Gonzalez took over the PAT and field goal opportunities from junior Alex Garoutte after Garoutte's inconsistency a year ago (he still handles kickoffs, however). Gonzalez, though, has been touch-and-go himself, making four-of-seven FG attempts, with a long of 40. The punting duties fall on junior Dom Vizzare, who's averaging 39.9 yards per kick. Freshman Matt Haack has also seen some duty. Grice handles kickoff returns (21.3 yards per), while Nelson is on punt return duty (6.0).

USC Offensive Gameplan
USC's offense had some moments in the first half against Utah State. The Trojans ran the ball fairly effectively, and the play call on Cody Kessler's TD pass to Xavier Grimble was spot on. However, some hiccups in line play, a couple of dropped passes and a strange move away from that effective rushing attack led to yet another disappointing performance in the second half. While it felt like USC could be truly establishing an offensive identity as a power rushing team early in the game, an inexplicable reliance on the pass - especially considering the knowledge that Kessler had injured his hand - after the Trojan defense gave the offense incredible field position a number of times in the second half still boggles the mind.

I, for one, am growing tired of hearing references to dropped passes being a crucial downfall of the USC offense - the big "If!?" Newsflash: players drop passes (Ask an ASU fan how annoying that can be). Newsflash No. 2: even the best offensive linemen miss assignments. But strategic inconsistency remains the biggest issue for this Trojan offense.

After watching ASU against Wisconsin and Stanford, one would be hard pressed to imagine that the Trojans would come out throwing the ball all over the yard on Saturday night. USC's offensive line, which has been especially inconsistent in pass protection, has shown a mean streak in the running attack - and the Sun Devils' front seven has not yet lived up to its preseason billing. Tre Madden and Justin Davis could see some heavy lifting - and if they are effective, it would open up the play-action and rollout passing game that has been reasonably impressive in spurts against Boston College and Utah State.

USC Defensive Gameplan
USC's defense has been - in a word - amazing. Considering where this group was at the end of the 2012 season, it's truly stunning to see them playing so fast and so aggressively. The consistent pressure on Keeton a week ago - and, perhaps even more impressively, the containment on him when he tried to escape the pocket - was a true breath of fresh air after watching recent Trojan defenses struggle so deeply against similar offenses.

It's also a boon that USC got to see the Utah State offense leading into this week's game. When Arizona State has things clicking, they play at a faster pace than Utah State, but the concepts are very similar. Kelly is more likely to hurt you with his arm than his feet - but the Trojans can't afford to lose contain on him either. Additionally, the Sun Devils use of their backs in the passing game is a cause for concern - the more horizontal passing attack used with those runners often opens the middle of the field for their bigger targets like Strong and Coyle.

There are three playmakers that USC must account for: Kelly, Grice and Strong. Kelly has gotten very comfortable throwing the ball up to the sizeable Strong, so the Trojans' corners must be ready for that. But Grice is the real key to this offense. If he's able to run the ball effectively, it opens things up for Kelly and makes his decisiveness that much better. At the same time, if Grice has success in the passing game, it makes those other receivers even more valuable. The Trojans must slow Grice on the ground, continue to get into the backfield on passing downs and account for Strong, especially in the red zone.

The Pick
Before the season, I picked the Sun Devils to win this game by 10. That was before I saw this Trojan defense play four games.

However, that doesn't mean I'm picking USC. The way things are going, the 2013 USC football team is headed down one of two paths: 1) the offense picks things up, starts producing and gives the defense a break from having to make stops on seemingly every possession; or 2) the offense continues to sputter along in fits and starts and, eventually, an overtaxed defense is unable to carry the day over and over again.

This game is exceedingly winnable for USC. Arizona State is a little banged up - physically on defense and mentally after the first half at Stanford last weekend. However, unless things change for the Trojan offense - meaning they find a consistent identity and convert scoring opportunities into actual points - it's going to continue to put pressure on a defense that, while gaining confidence weekly, cannot be expected to both stop the opposition and score some points. Simply, while I think a well-oiled USC offense would make the Trojans a pretty clear-cut favorite, that's just not the case. With that lack of support, I see the USC defense showing a couple of cracks in the second half (finally), and the Sun Devils grabbing a crucial home win in the Pac-12 South race.

Arizona State 20, USC 14

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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