Preview: USC at Arizona State
After three consecutive games in the Los Angeles Coliseum, USC will don the road jerseys for the first time in 2011. The Trojans travel to Arizona State to engage in a desert duel between teams favored to finish atop the Pac 12 south. The new look Sun Devils are looking to respond to last week’s loss at Illinois, and a victory over the postseason ineligible Trojans would allow for an early lead in the race for the Pac 12 championship game. The visitor currently sits in first place of the division standings, after defeating Utah in week two.
Arizona State Sun Devils (2-1)
National Rank: none
Last Week: Loss at Illinois 17-14
Offense: The Sun Devils offense is powered by Brock Osweiler and currently ranks 24th best in the nation. The unit is averaging 314 passing yards per game, with its quarterback completing 66 percent of his passes at a ratio of six touchdowns to three interceptions. Wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad has emerged as the favorite target, leading his team with 18 receptions and looking to add more. The Oregon transfer isn’t intimidating in appearance, but is an exceptional route runner that is often found unaccounted for in the secondary.
ASU enters with a less than formidable rushing attack. At an average of 142 yards per game, it ranks 77th nationally and ninth best in the Pac 12. Cameron Marshall is the feature back, who received All-Pac 10 honorable mention in 2010, but has staggered to a slow start in the follow-up season. The junior has rushed for an average of just 51 yards through three games, with a yards per carry mark of 3.6 overall and 2.9 in games played in Tempe.
Defense: You can’t speak of the Sun Devil defense without the mention of Vontaze Burfict. The linebacker’s exuberant style of play makes for the ultimate field warrior to restrict opposing drives, but also an emotional Achilles heel that can often extend them. The former Trojan commit is one of the most feared defensemen in college football, but his unit isn’t as feared as in years past. ASU ranks 47th overall in total defense, surrendering an average of 328 yards and 20 points per game. The greatest weakness comes against the pass, where opposing quarterbacks post a combined efficiency rating of 131.08, one of the worst in conference, and among the country’s lower tier.
USC Trojans (3-0)
National Rank: 23 (AP)
Last Week: defeated Syracuse 38-17
Offense: The Trojan pass attack finally found a rhythm last week that stayed in tune for sixty minutes. In doing so, Matt Barkley climbs to 11th in the country passing, with an average of nearly 27 completions per game. The majority of those completions are hauled in by Robert Woods, who now leads the nation with 33 receptions. Adapting to the college pace and coming into his own is freshman Marqise Lee, who plays an important role in relieving double teams placed on his high profile teammate. Xavier Grimble has settled in and found a comfort zone, as Lane Kiffin has noticeably increased tight end production with each passing week.
The positives end with the aerial attack, as USC looks very unlike its “Tailback U” moniker. At 131 yards per game, and 3.9 yards per carry, the Trojans rank a woeful 79th in rushing. After three games, it is apparent that there is no quick fix. Despite several backfield runners and multiple formations, the struggle continues. The catalyst is still a young offensive line that fares well in pass blocking, but not so much with ball carriers behind it. Marc Tyler is listed again as the starting tailback this week, and rushed for more than 100 yards in the second game. But overall, both he and his teammates have been running in place, gaining little ground in quick closing gaps, with even less success outside.
Defense: Try as it may, the Trojan defense has been incapable of shedding the image from 2010. It seems that with every pass completion or third down success, the automatic response has been for analysts to dig into old stats and slap them on the face of the new unit. Well here lies an opportunity to prove difference, as USC will face its biggest test to date.
The overall numbers are encouraging, while also hinting towards a team in steady development as it goes. USC is 28th in the country against the rush, and 22nd in sacks. And though the team allows an average of just 16 points per game, it needs to show improvement in pass coverage, where it is surrendering an average of 229 yards per contest.
Analysis: To watch Arizona State on any given Saturday is to witness a coaching philosophy that fails to stress discipline. Dennis Erickson won a national championship with an undisciplined team in Miami, and has attempted for several years to duplicate the feat in the desert. The Sun Devils take the field this weekend as one of the nation’s most penalized teams, already flagged 24 times, at an average of 8 per game. The contest will ultimately be decided by the number of points on the scoreboard, but weighing into the final total may not only be damage inflicted by the visitor, but also self inflicted wounds that drain the team of life. ASU has also committed 6 turnovers in three games, with three of those occurring in the loss last week.
The positive in having a 6’8 quarterback is an unobstructed view of the field. The negative is the large frame providing a bigger target for defenders. Protecting Osweiler has been an issue, as the quarterback has been planted already seven times this year. He now faces a sack happy Trojan defense that enters Saturday’s game with nine notches in its belt. Victory comes with the ball moving forward, but through penalties and sacks, it’s the Devils that oftentimes move in the opposite direction. Those errors are easily overcome in games versus lesser opponents, but as witnessed on several occasions, those same errors in big games have been the difference between winning and losing.
X-Factor-Special Teams: Field position will often dictate how a game is played, and few have been able to grab a more substantial amount of turf through special teams than ASU. The Sun Devils rank a Pac 12 best in kickoff return yards (29.92), which is also good enough for ninth in the nation. They are also second only to Stanford in the Pac 12 in punt return average. USC plays a ‘bend but don’t break’ defense, and a key to that is a special teams unit pinning the opponent deep in its own end. If Arizona State holds true to pattern with significant gains on returns, it issues a new challenge to a Trojan defense that instantly loses flexibility on the shorter field.
All Time Series: USC leads 18-9
Streak: USC has won 11
Last Meeting: USC 34, ASU 33 (Los Angeles, 2010)
- Arizona State’s last victory over USC came on November 29, 1999.
- The Sun Devils were the only Pac 10 program never to beat Pete Carroll.
- Home field has meant little in this series. USC has won just as many in Los Angeles (9) as it has in Tempe.
- Dennis Erickson has a career coaching record of 1-9 versus USC
- Vontaze Burfict has recorded four sacks through three games, which ties him for third best in the nation entering week four.