Game 10: 'It's Hard to Believe We Need a Place Called Hell'
As Arizona State visits for Homecoming, USC tries to overcome the devil inside that's threatening to devour its season.
The USC Trojans (6-3, 4-3 in the Pac-12), ranked No. 19 in the BCS standings, No. 21 by the Associated Press, and No. 22 by the USA Today coaches' poll, host their annual Homecoming game against the Arizona State Sun Devils (5-4, 3-3) at noon (PST) on Saturday, November 10 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Pac-12 Networks cable television audience. It is the 29th meeting between the two schools, with Troy holding an 18-10 edge. Prior to ASU's 43-22 victory in 2011, the Trojans had won the previous 11 meetings, including a 34-33 victory at the Coliseum in 2010.
Last Saturday, a Trojan offense that produced a season high 51 points couldn't keep up with then-BCS No. 4 Oregon's high-flying attack in a 62-51 Ducks' victory in Los Angeles. The points and Oregon's 730 total yards were USC opponent records, spoiling another epic performance by sophomore wideout Marqise Lee, who had 408 all-purpose yards (157 receiving on 12 catches, including two TDs). Meanwhile, the Sun Devils faltered after opening up an early 11-point lead in a 36-26 loss at then-BCS No. 11 Oregon State. The Beavers had 424 total yards against Arizona State and held the Devils to a season-low 153 passing yards.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (31-16 career collegiate head coaching record; 24-10 at USC) is in his third season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, ASU headman Todd Graham (54-33 overall in seven seasons) is in first campaign in Tempe after stops at Rice, Tulsa and Pittsburgh. Sun Devil fans have to be hoping that the short stays Graham has become noted for in his brief head coaching career will stop in Tempe, as the ASU offense has had some life breathed into it. Still, after a 5-1 start, Arizona State has dropped three in a row and is looking to avoid the kind of season-closing slide that has bedeviled its program in recent years.
Arizona State Offense
Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has done a nice job installing Graham's system with a new starter at quarterback and a fairly green group of receivers. One reason is a renewed focus on rushing the football - something that got lost in Tempe under recent coaching staffs. The Devils, who have a knack for jumping out to early leads (they've scored first in eight of nine games and hold a 99-56 first-quarter scoring edge), have to be pleased, though, by the play of sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly. He's completed 65.5 percent of his passes for 20 TDs against just six interceptions and ranks third in the Pac-12 (No. 19 nationally) in pass efficiency. He also has 383 rushing yards on the year (just 10 yards shy of the team lead), even though the Sun Devils are allowing 2.9 sacks per game, ranked 100th nationally.
At running back, the Sun Devils have created a three-headed monster, featuring senior Cameron Marshall, junior Marion Grice and true freshman D.J. Foster. Marshall is the veteran thumper, averaging 4.1 yards per carry with six TDs. Grice has shown a nose for the end zone, scoring 13 times (six rushing, seven receiving), while Foster has shown flashes of the brilliance that had ASU fans excited for his arrival. He leads the Devils with 393 rushing yards and a 5.5 per-carry average. Four of his six scores are as a receiver. In fact, Foster (31 catches, 14.9 yards per grab) and Grice (28 catches, 11.8 yards per) are the Devils' second- and third-leading receivers respectively, while Marshall has added 10 catches.
Kelly not only loves throwing to his backs, but also his tight ends and slot receivers. Senior Jamal Miles, who has been a bit of a do-it-all type his entire career in Tempe, has 23 catches out of the slot, while also running the ball 13 times, and remains a dangerous weapon if unaccounted for. Junior tight end/H-back Chris Coyle is the Devils' top pass catcher, with 43 grabs for 501 yards and two TDs. ASU's top traditional wideouts are senior speedster Rashad Ross (21 catches, 16.0 average, one TD) and more physical junior Kevin Ozier (17 catches, 14.5 average, five TDs).
The Arizona State offensive line has been better at opening running holes in 2012, but has struggled at times in pass protection. The group, though, has avoided any major injury catastrophes, with only senior right guard Andrew Sampson missing any starts (he's missed the past two with an ankle injury, but is expected back on Saturday - redshirt freshman Vi Teofilo performed well in his stead). Junior left tackle Evan Finkenberg and senior right tackle Brice Schwab are veterans, while junior Kody Koebensky has done a nice job replacing the graduated Garth Gerhart. Left guard is manned by sophomore Jamil Douglas.
Arizona State Defense
Paul Randolph and Ron West couldn't have imagined how their new ASU defense would be a bit of a revelation in Tempe. The Sun Devils are second in the Pac-12 (and 24th nationally) in total defense and lead the conference in both pass yards allowed and pass efficiency defense (ranking in the national top 15 in both categories). ASU is second nationally in sacks (39 on the season) and tackles for loss (82). With all of that, though, the Devils have struggled at times against the run, no more so than in their consecutive losses to Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State.
Up front, junior tackle Will Sutton has been a crucial playmaker for ASU, notching 9.5 sacks (and 15 tackles for loss) to lead the Pac-12. He's a major disruptor and his early injury against Oregon (and the fact that he missed following weekend's game against UCLA) was a huge loss for the Devil defense. He returned last weekend. He's joined inside by freshman nose tackle Jaxon Hood, who has given ASU hope for the future at the spot. Junior Gannon Conway rotates inside, as well. At end, Junior Onyeali is a playmaker when healthy, which has been a problem for the third-year player. He has five sacks, while classmate Davon Coleman has filled in admirably for him when needed (35 tackles, 2.5 sacks). At the "Devil" end spot, sophomore Carl Bradford has also been outstanding in the pass rush, with 7.5 sacks among his 51 stops.
The return of weakside linebacker Brandon Magee from last season's ACL injury has been massive for ASU. The senior leader fills up the stat sheet - a team-leading 70 tackles, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions. On the strong side, junior Steffon Martin sees most of the time, with redshirt junior Anthony Jones filling in at times in dime formations. The most intriguing facet of the new Sun Devil defense is the Spur position, which is a hybrid linebacker/safety/nickel position, ably manned thus far by junior Chris Young. The attacking JC transfer has 13.5 tackles for loss among his 60 stops.
With its athletic linebackers and hybrid positioning, the Devil secondary is a true quartet of stalwarts who take most every snap. Senior free safety Keelan Johnson has 61 tackles, two picks and six pass break-ups to lead the group. Junior Alden Darby has 52 stops and two interceptions from his strong safety spot. Outside, junior Osahon Irabor and senior Deveron Carr have improved this season to hold down the corner spots.
Arizona State Special Teams
Sophomore placekicker Alex Garoutte handles PATs, FGs and kickoffs. He's just six-of-11 on field goals, but is perfect on 39 PATs. Junior Jon Hays handled the placekicking against Colorado and UCLA, making five-of-seven FG attempts, with a long of 38. He's also had a PAT blocked. Senior punter Josh Hubner has been spectacular, averaging more than 47 yards per boot, with 17 of his 38 punts going for 50+ yards (and 16 inside the 20-yard line). Miles remains a threat on punt returns, though he's only averaging eight yards per attempt this season. He splits kickoff return duties with Ross, and the duo averages 24 yards per return - though Ross had a 100-yard TD against Colorado.
USC Offensive Gameplan
USC Defensive Gameplan
As you may be able to tell from just above, I'm weary of the BS. And, if I am a little weary of all of the miniature "controversies" that have built into a maximum issue - mainly because of the media's wholesale (and, to be honest, deserved) lack of trust of Kiffin - I'm sure you are too. But fans and media can be tired of the BS and it doesn't affect the outcome of a game. The question is: are USC's players worn down by a pair of tough defeats and the litany of ridiculous issues that have accompanied them off the field?
To be sure, the deflated balls "scandal" that broke on Wednesday night wouldn't nearly be the story it is if not for Kiffin's continual ability to make missteps off the field that are just completely silly and unnecessary. However, the reality is that the target on USC's back grows ever larger for the media with each molehill that adds to the growing mountain. That's not what put me over the edge this week, though. No, that was the announcement that Lee may see snaps on defense. The wisdom - at this point in the season - of risking a Lee injury at a position he hasn't played in years as a partial solution to USC's defensive issues is brutal. But the timing of the announcement, which was designed to deflect criticism on the "deflated balls" issue, is brutally transparent.
There will be a time for discussion of the coaching staff's future on campus sometime in the next two months. Kiffin isn't doing much to help his position in retaining staff members or full power over the program. He could benefit himself greatly by leading the Trojans to victory in these next three eminently winnable games. Can he do so? Much of that is left to how invested USC's players still are in a season that's been knocked sideways. I think this group (which earned much faith in its "Fight On" spirit in 2011) has one more chance to come together this Saturday. The Trojans will respond (just enough) against a Sun Devil team that's just as down as they are.
USC 44, Arizona State 35
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 12 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)