Game 9: Pleased to Meet You, Hope You Guessed My Name
Can USC rebound from a tough loss to top-ranked Oregon against a Sun Devil team playing trying to keep its bowl hopes alive?
The USC Trojans (5-3, 2-3 Pac-10) close out a three-game homestand on Saturday, November 6 against the Arizona State Sun Devils (4-4, 2-3) at 7:30 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Fox Sports Net cable television audience. It is the 27th meeting between the two schools, with Troy holding a 17-9 edge. The Trojans have won the past 10 meetings, including an ugly 14-9 decision in Tempe a season ago and a 28-0 victory in the last Los Angeles meeting in 2008.
A week ago, the Trojans saw Oregon score 24 unanswered second-half points, turning a 32-29 USC lead into a 53-32 USC defeat. Oregon running back LaMichael James rushed for 239 yards, while quarterback Darron Thomas threw four touchdown passes. However, costly mistakes in scheme and execution by the USC offense definitely helped the Ducks pull away late. Meanwhile, Arizona State dominated Washington State, 42-0, in the Sun Devils' Homecoming game. Junior quarterback Steven Threet threw three touchdown passes and the Sun Devil defense held the Cougars to just eight yards rushing.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (12-9 career collegiate head coaching record; 5-3 at USC) is in his first season at USC, after serving as the head coach at Tennessee in 2009. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. California headman Dennis Erickson is in his fourth season in the desert and 22nd season overall as a college head coach (23-22 at ASU; 171-87-1 overall). After a fast start - a 10-win season in 2007 - Erickson has overseen a struggling Sun Devils' program that, in 2010, has been a true Jekyll-and-Hyde.
Arizona State Offense Veteran offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone oversees an offense that struggled mightily to move the football consistently - especially on the ground - in 2009. The Devil offense has improved in 2010, especially through the air, with Michigan transfer Threet at the helm. ASU is averaging 293 yards passing per game, second in the Pac-10 (No. 16 nationally). And though the Devils rank eighth in the conference in rushing with just 139 yards per game, they have been much more capable of breaking a big play on the ground in 2010 than a season ago thanks to some personnel upgrades. Threet has been the key, though, for the Devils - in both good and bad ways. A true pocket passer, he's completing 62.5 percent of his passes and has the ability to make most any throw. However, along with 14 touchdown passes, Threet has thrown 13 interceptions. When he's been good, the Sun Devils have been formidable. When he's struggled, so has ASU.
Threet's been aided greatly by a deep and capable corps of receivers. Senior Kerry Taylor is the leader, averaging 13.5 yards on his 32 grabs, with two scores. But he's just one of six wideouts with 16 catches or more. Junior Mike Willie, a sizeable target at 6'4", has 28 catches and leads ASU with four TDs. Junior Aaron Pflugrad, a transfer from Oregon, has 23 catches, while junior Gerell Robinson (18), sophomore Jamal Miles (17), and junior T.J. Simpson (16) round out the group.
The Devils have put together an interesting one-two punch in the backfield, operating out of their traditional single-back set. Sophomore Cameron Marshall and true freshman Deantre Lewis have split the carries, with the bulkier Marshall serving as the workhorse (a 4.8 average on 89 carries) and Lewis as the gamebreaker (a 6.5 average on 71 carries). Marshall has eight total TDs, seven rushing, and Lewis six, four on the ground. The speedy Lewis (three 100-yard rushing games in 2010) has become a major threat in the passing game, as well, with 16 grabs for a 16.6 yards-per average.
The Sun Devil front five has played a lot of mix-and-match this season thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness. ASU has allowed 19 sacks this season, a troubling number. At left tackle, junior Dan Knapp and redshirt freshman Evan Finkenberg have split time, with Finkenberg starting the last four at that spot. Junior Mike Marcisz seems locked in at left guard, with six consecutive starts there, after starting the opener at right tackle. Junior center Garth Gerhart has been the rock of the line in 2010, while at right guard, sophomore Andrew Sampson has started the past four (Finkenberg is also listed as a co-starter at the spot). Juniors Aderious Simmons and Bryce Schwab have shared the right tackle spot.
Arizona State Defense ASU's defensive coordinator Craig Bray, another veteran mind on Erickson's staff, has a nice mix of youth and experience on a unit that has sparkled at times and struggled at others. The Devils have not created many turnovers (12, vs. 18 giveaways by the offense), are tied for last in the conference in sacks (15), but are stingy against the run (110 yards per game) and on third down, allowing just a 30-percent conversion rate. ASU has also struggled with injuries to some key players, including the losses of junior linebacker Shelly Lyons and sophomore cornerback Deveron Carr.
Up front, the Sun Devils have a seven-man rotation in their four-man line, including juniors James Brooks and Jamaar Jarrett at one end spot. The duo has combined for 25 stops and five sacks. At the other end, true freshman Junior Onyeali has made a name for himself quickly with a team-leading 4.5 sacks (three last weekend against Washington State) and nine tackles for loss among his 12 total stops. Senior Jamarr Robinson also sees time at end. Junior Lawrence Guy is a leader at one tackle spot, with 27 tackles, while junior Bo Moos and senior Saia Falahola share the other inside spot.
Former USC recruit Vontaze Burfict is the star of the ASU defense. A physical freak at middle linebacker, he leads the team with 59 tackles and ranges from sideline to sideline. He's also a liability, having committed a series of personal fouls in his season-and-a-half in Tempe. On the outside, junior Brandon Magee is capable of playing on both the weak and strong side. He's tied for second on the team with 35 tackles with Colin Parker, who is also capable at both positions. Oliver Aaron sees time on the strong side, with Lyons sidelined, and has 19 tackles.
The Devils do a little more mixing and matching at the safety position, with four interchangeable pieces. Juniors Eddie Elder and Clint Floyd and senior Max Tabach see most of the time, with Tabach notching 35 tackles, Elder 34 and Floyd 21. Sophomore Keelan Johnson is the fourth man in the mix and plays often in nickel situations. At corner, junior Omar Bolden has begun to live up to his early hype this year, with 33 tackles and two interceptions. Redshirt freshman Osahon Irabor was forced into duty when Carr went down and has been targeted often by opposing quarterbacks.
Arizona State Special Teams Senior placekicker Thomas Weber has been a star since day one in Tempe, but he's struggled a little bit this year, making just 10-of-16 field goals - well off his career percentage. Still, he has plenty of range, making his only 50-plus yard effort of the season. Senior punter Trevor Hankins is having a great season, averaging 47.1 yards, including 15 punts of longer than 50 yards. Wideout Miles handles punt returns, averaging more than 10 yards per chance. Freshman running back Kyle Middlebrooks and senior defensive back LeQuan Lewis have been solid as kick returners.
USC Offensive Gameplan After a pair of stellar offensive performances against Stanford and Cal, the Trojans took a step back against Oregon. Matt Barkley's uneven performance included a costly fumble and two interceptions, and USC's scheme helped limit the Trojans' output against a questionable Oregon defense. Lane Kiffin seemed impatient with the run, and the Trojans failed to strike at the weakness in the Ducks' secondary. USC's offensive line also had a tough night. The one thing the Oregon defense does well is run sideline-to-sideline - and the Trojans' scheme often seemed to play directly into that.
The Sun Devils like to bring the pressure against opposing offenses, as their stellar tackles-for-loss numbers show. However, they haven't had much luck actually getting to the quarterback and finishing sacks. With Michael Reardon replacing Butch Lewis on the offensive line, the Trojans' front five will have to communicate well against the Devils' stunting and blitzing.
Look for USC to come out throwing, especially on quick drops and with Barkley on the move to minimize and take advantage of the Sun Devils' upfield push. Opening the ground game with the pass is the answer against ASU, which has been tough on rushing attacks - the Devils are the only team to hold Oregon's James under 100 yards this season. USC should be able to take advantage of the Sun Devils outside linebackers and safeties in the underneath passing attack, which could set up the deep ball to Ronald Johnson or Robert Woods.
USC Defensive Gameplan For a team that allowed 53 points to Oregon, the USC defense definitely had its moments against the Ducks. From late in the first quarter until early in the third quarter, the Trojan defense stopped the Oregon offense on six of nine possessions and gave the offense a chance to build a much larger lead than 32-29. Still, USC's focus on the Ducks' running game allowed Thomas to light up the still-struggling USC secondary. Even senior Shareece Wright, who had been very solid throughout 2010, was exposed on Saturday night.
More swaps on the depth chart this week speak to Monte Kiffin and Co. continuing to look for answers. The apparent return of Malcolm Smith at linebacker now gives USC more depth to play with as they move players likeChris Galippo, Shane Horton and others around looking for a good combination. And Marshall Jones' apparent elevation to starter in the secondary will hopefully settle things down in the back four.
This Saturday, USC's defensive brain trust and players will be happy to see ASU's much more traditional offensive sets. The Devils are similar to Cal in formations and scheme, but with a difference in personnel. Where the Bears' strength was in the running game, the Devils are better throwing the football. The Trojans' front seven will be counted on to control Arizona State's rushing attack, because USC's secondary will be tested by the Sun Devils' deep wide receiver corps. A key factor could very well be ASU's troubles in protecting Threet and his tendency to make mistakes under pressure. How USC rushes the passer this week will likely decide how well the Trojan defense performs.
The Pick How the Trojans react to last weekend's defeat is a crucial factor in this football game. USC's shot at beating the top-ranked Ducks was real, and the hype around the game was powerful. Does USC finally suffer a letdown following a loss after bouncing back strong from each of their first two losses? How will the Trojans react to what likely will be one of the smaller Coliseum crowds in recent seasons? Bluntly, with three losses down the drain, the opportunity to be a major factor in the conference race gone and games against rivals Notre Dame and UCLA still about a month off, will the Trojans show up?
This has been a resilient group so far, and I believe they will continue to show that resilience and will be ready to play Saturday night. Then, it comes to talent, scheme and gameplan. USC's talent is still better than the Sun Devils', and ASU's scheme on both sides of the ball plays right into the Trojans' wheelhouse.
Slow the run and rush the passer on defense. Force mistakes and turnovers. Use your speed and talent in the passing attack to take advantage. Follow that recipe, and the Trojans should move to 6-3.
USC 34, Arizona State 20
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 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