The Trojans got back on track last week with a beatdown of the Ducks and Mike Bellotti, who was for running up the score before he was against it. Now they face a reeling Arizona State team who is licking their wounds. A three game losing streak includes a home loss to UNLV, a no show against Georgia, and a sleep walking performance in Berkeley. The news gets worse for ASU, as it is very likely that starting QB Rudy Carpenter will be out with a sprained ankle. Still, the only loss that USC has suffered in the LA Coliseum since 2001 came at the hands of a reeling team and a back up quarterback. Can history repeat itself? Here's a look at the match-up.
Arizona State Offense vs. USC Defense
This group was limping long before Carpenter was. A team that was explosive offensively last season has averaged a mere 23 points per game despite playing Northern Arizona, Stanford, and UNLV. There are a number of reasons for this. The scheme is essentially the same as last season: a one back scheme that fluctuates between two tight ends and three WRs. The blocking scheme is zone, and the pass offense features a lot of clearing out, as Oregon State's did. ASU likes to throw to the intermediate routes behind the clear outs. They threw a lot of dig routes against the Trojans last season. With Carpenter, they were more likely to attack the deep portions of the field than OSU was.
Now they probably won't have Carpenter. They'll hand the reins over to Danny Sullivan, a big junior who hasn't played very much. Sullivan was not heavily recruited, and he doesn't have a big arm or great mobility. Last season he had good numbers in spot duty, but this year he has completed one of eight passes for -1 yard. Yikes. Now, there's no telling what a smart kid can do with a full week of reps with the first team offense, but Mark Sanchez struggled with it last year, and he is far more talented than Sullivan.
To make matters worse, the Sun Devil running game has taken a huge step backward this season. ASU runs for fewer yards per game than UCLA at 85. That's embarrassing, especially with an experienced duo of tailbacks returning in Keegan Herring and Dmitri Nance. But they're not the problem. The offensive line is the problem. Their unit wasn't very good last year, and they lost three starters. The lack of quality recruiting here by Dirk Koetter is haunting them now. Not a single back averages at least four yards per carry. They've given up 12 sacks in five games, and Carpenter has avoided many others. As a result, Dennis Erickson was forced to place the offense squarely on Carpenter's shoulders, and he did the best that he could. But he likely won't available.
That means that ASU will have to come after the USC defense with a poor running game, an abysmal offensive line, and a QB who has completed 13% of his passes this season. Good luck with that.
Arizona State Defense vs. USC Offense
If the Devils are going to have a prayer of keeping this close, this is where they'll have to do it. There's a little uncertainty with the Trojans due to the injury to Sanchez, although at press time it appears that he will be ready to start. Arizona State has performed reasonably well on defense. They are a classic bend but don't break defense. They will play some bump coverage, but they won't rely on it exclusively. They are a standard 4-3 defense that doesn't blitz very much at all. They just try to keep you in front of them. In all honesty, they have a very vanilla defensive scheme. They don't change looks much. They don't play many games with their linebackers. They don't do a lot of stunting. The safeties stay back.
With the possible exception of DE Dexter Davis and CB Omar Bolden, this group just doesn't have any playmakers. They try to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, which means avoiding gambling that would allow you to exploit any weak links. When they play tight on one side, they shade the safety that way. They rarely play tight on both sides. They are basically a religious Cover 2 team that relies on executing their assignments and tackling well.
The group has played well with the exception of the Georgia game, but even in that game, they forced three field goal attempts and hung around a lot longer than they should have. They don't do any one thing great. They're sixth in the conference in run defense. Fifth in pass efficiency defense. They only have six sacks in five games, and have forced only four turnovers. And yet somehow, they only give up 20 points per game.
I wish there was more to say about this game. Arizona State wasn't a very good team with Carpenter, and they'll likely be substantially worse without him. He really was the shining star of this Sun Devil squad, and not having him hurts. He knows the offense, he's an accurate passer, his mobility makes some things happen, and he's a tough kid that others looked up to as a leader.
It seems highly unlikely that ASU will have any success on offense. They don't have a running game to lean on with a young quarterback making his first start. Too many seven step drops will probably lead to the third string QB making an appearance. That leaves Arizona State with short passing mixed in with some intermediate stuff. One dimensional teams have not fared well against the Trojans without a spectacular defensive performance. I doubt we'll see that from ASU with Sanchez out there. They're not going to be able to get to him without completely selling out. They may decide that it's their only chance to win, which would cause them to break tendency. But I doubt it, because Oregon tried it last week and got murdered.
Arizona State is going to stick with their defensive gameplan, which is more like Oregon State's than Oregon's. They aren't as good defensively as Oregon State is though. And they likely will not be staked to a double digit lead early in the game. Football is a sport where everything is interconnected. How well or poorly an offense plays affects the team's defense, and vice versa. It's improbable that ASU's offense will perform even at a level that would be classified as average. I expect them to be frustrated all day long. Whether it be with turnovers or poor field position or both, it will affect the defense.
The only way the Sun Devils can balance that out is with special teams and turnovers, and maybe some help from USC when it comes to penalties. The Trojans have been happy to oblige with the penalties early in the season. Kyle Williams is an excellent kickoff and punt returner for ASU, so he could be a factor. But it will probably be more on kickoffs than punts. A team that doesn't rush the passer will struggle against USC, and I expect that the Trojans will run the ball more effectively than they did in Tempe last season. The Arizona State defense has not showed the playmaking ability necessary to keep a team with no offense close to an elite unit like USC. This game will get ugly early.