The Obvious: In a believe-it-or-not 9 a.m. PST kickoff accompanied by predicted rain amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the predicted top two powers in the Pac-12 South Division, the No. 20 USC Trojans (0-0 overall, 0-0 Pac-12 South) and the Arizona State Sun Devils (0-0 overall, 0-0 Pac-12 South), will have at it in a fan-less Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Not So Obvious: In a shortened season, this divisional game is huge, like really HUGE. The winner will take one giant step towards the December 18 Pac-12 Championship Game. The loser will actually be two games behind Saturday’s winner if you consider one of the criteria for a South Division tie being head-to-head competition. In other words, it would behoove Clay Helton’s Trojans to win on Saturday. A loss could be crippling.
The Obvious: The Trojans opened as an 11-point favorite to defeat ASU.
The Not So Obvious: The Trojans hold an overall 22-13 series edge over the Sun Devils, but ASU is just 6-11 playing in the Coliseum. The Trojans have won four of the past five games with ASU.
The Obvious: Saturday morning’s game will be televised on FOX (9 a.m. PT/12 p.m. ET).
The Not So Obvious: The FOX broadcasters will be Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analyst) and Jenny Taft (sidelines).
The Obvious: Saturday morning’s Trojans’ radio game broadcast will air live on KABC 790 AM (9 a.m. PT) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), Shaun Cody and John Jackson (analysts) and Jordan Moore (sideline).
The Trojans’ overall KABC AM 790 broadcast will begin with a two-hour pregame show at 7:00 a.m. (PT). The pregame broadcast crew will include Sam Farber and former Trojans’ quarterback Max Browne. The pregame show will also be simulcasted on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube). The streamed simulcast, called the Trojans Tailgate Show, will also feature performances by the USC Song Girls, Trojans Marching Band, Spirit Leaders, and will also provide viewers with fan involvement, with prizes courtesy of the USC Athletic Department. Following the game, there will be a two-hour post-game show.
The Not So Obvious: The ASU broadcast (10 a.m. MST) can be heard on Arizona Sports 98.7 and ESPN 620 with veteran ASU voice Tim Healey calling the play-by-play.
Saturday`s game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (channel 137/197) or online channel (959) and on the Tunein Radio app.
The Obvious: Saturday’s Los Angeles weather forecast calls for AM rain with a high of 57 degrees, a low of 49 degrees, 67% humidity, and 80% precipitation. Temperature for the 9 a.m. (PT) kickoff is expected to be rain and 53 degrees.
The Not So Obvious: The real weather report is whether the two teams are really ready for a rainy 9 a.m. game, a fan-less Coliseum, and the pressure of an opening game that will have a major impact in the Pac-12 South Division race.
Offensively, we’ll see whether the USC’s offense—which in 2019 averaged 455 total yards, including a school-record 335 passing yards, and 32 points a game – is that much better with a season of the Air Raid offense under their belt. The Trojans return their top two passers, top six rushers, seven of its top eight pass catchers, and three starting linemen from last season.
We’ll find out whether Trojans’ sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis, who was the 2019 Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American first teamer, has made marked improvement since the Holiday Bowl. We’ll also see whether wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown (77 catches) and Tyler Vaughns (74 catches) and Drake London, who added five TDs among his 39 grabs, deserve being in the conversation as the nation’s top receiving unit. Then there are the USC tailbacks: Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, Markese Stepp and Kenan Christon. We’ll see whether this season will be running backs by committee or whether one of these backs becomes the linchpin for this offense.
It should be noted, that a lot of the offense will center around the play-calling of second-year coordinator Graham Harrell and whether Harrell really is looking to have a productive running attack to compliment the Air Raid. Another big question is whether the Trojans will use their tight ends consistently, which hasn’t been the case in the recent past. Graham does have tight end talent in Erik Krommenhoek, Jude Wolfe, and Josh Falo, who have 33 career receptions between them.
Then there is the annual question of whether the Trojans will have a physical and productive offensive line. Six linemen—Alijah Vera-Tucker, Jalen McKenzie, Andrew Vorhees, Liam Jimmons, Brett Neilon and Justin Dedich—have extensive experience. This unit remains a major question mark, and we’ll see against the ASU defense whether experience wins out over talent.
We’ll also see whether ASU’s defense, which is co-directed by former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce, can stop an experienced Trojans offense, which figures to be among the Pac-12’s best. The Sun Devils bring back their top four tacklers in senior LBers Merlin Roberston and Darien Butler, senior DB Evan Fields, junior DL Jermayne Lole, and return senior DB Jack Jones.
Conversely, we’ll see whether the Trojans’ defense, led by junior defensive nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, junior inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV, sophomore hybrid DL/OLB Drake Jackson, and a secondary consisting of junior Olaijah Griffin and sophomore Chris Steele at the corners can mesh with outstanding junior safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao. Can they slow down the new Sun Devils’ offense? The ASU offense is led by sophomore QB Jayden Daniels (205-of-338, 60.7%, 2,943 yds, 17 TD, 2 int in 2019, plus 125 tcb, 355 yds, 2.8 avg, 3 TD), a Freshman All-American, and senior WR Frank Darby, who is the Sun Devils top returning receiver after grabbing eight TDs among his 31 receptions last season. FYI, ASU will will be starting transfer grads at both tackle spots.
Regarding the Trojans’ special teams under first-year coach Sean Snyder who replaced John Baxter, we’ll find out whether there has been overall improvement. Trojans’ placekicker Chase McGrath, who has 32 career field goals, Aussie punter Ben Griffiths (41.2 average in 2019), who also doubles as the holder, kickoff specialist Alex Stadthaus, three-year starting long snapper Damon Johnson, and punt returners Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown could all be factors one way or the other against ASU. Note: In Friday’s first released depth chart, true freshman placekicker Parker Lewis is now listed ahead of Chase McGrath.
As for ASU special teams, they have two major weapons in junior punter Michael Turk (46.0 P avg in 2019), who was an All-Pac-12 first-teamer last fall when he was 11th nationally in punting (46.0, first in Pac- 12). Junior placekicker Cristian Zendejas (23-of-27 FG, 29-of-30 PAT in 2019) was ninth nationally in field goals (1.8, first in Pac-12) could also be a big factor if the game gets down to a battle of field goals.
The Obvious: In 2019, the Trojans’ offense averaged 32.5 points while the ASU defense allowed 22.4 points per game.
The Not So Obvious: In 2019, ASU’s offense averaged 24.8 points per game while the Trojans’ defense allowed 29.4 points per outing.
The Obvious: Clay Helton is the Trojans’ fifth-year head coach, who is a former backup University of Houston quarterback.
The Not So Obvious: Regarding ASU, Helton says, “I have a lot of respect for Coach (Herm) Edwards and the job he’s done. He has put together a really good football team, a team that took us to the brink last year at their place. He’s doing a terrific job. Offensively, it starts with (QB) Jayden Daniels. What’s really neat about this game, you’re going to see two of the better quarterbacks in the country right off the bat on a national stage. I was extremely impressed with Jayden last year, his production last year as a true freshman was evident both in the passing game, and how he creates athletically. What was even more impressive was him not turning the ball over – only two interceptions on the year. They have three talented young backs that will be in the mix for that starting job.
“Defensively, it starts at linebacker. Merlin Roberston and Darien Butler may be the best combination of linebackers in our league. They have a ton of experience and a ton of production. Evan Fields on the back end, we were really impressed last year at the free safety position. And then the big man, DL Jermayne Lole, six and a half sacks on the year and double-digit losses. They were a very productive defense last year, as a defense that really gave us some issues to be honest with you. It will be different this year with new coordinators in play. It’s about us not making critical errors.”
The Obvious: Herm Edwards, a former NFL corner, is the third-year head coach of the Sun Devils.
The Not So Obvious: Commenting on his Sun Devils adjusting to Saturday’s 9 a.m. kickoff time, Edwards said, “I would assume we’ll be starting breakfast at 4:45. No one will be there at 4:45 except for me because I get up really early. I figure the rest of the team will probably get there 30 minutes prior to that. That’s the wake-up call.”
The Obvious: The Trojans will start sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis (6-2, 200), once a 3-star recruit from Desert Mountain High in Scottsdale, Arizona, who is widely considered a Heisman Trophy candidate. Last season, Kedon was the 2019 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. Kedon completed a Pac-12 record and NCAA freshman record 71.9% of his passes for a Trojans and a frosh record 3,502 yards with 30 TDs to rank in the national Top 20 in completion percentage, passing yards, completions, passing efficiency, passing TDs and total offense. Whew!
The Not So Obvious: ASU will start sophomore Jayden Daniels (6-3, 175), a former 4-star from Cajon High in San Bernardino, California. In his senior season at Cajon, Jayden was ranked as the No. 83 overall prospect and the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country in 24/7 Sports’ Composite Rankings. The mobile quarterback is also a 2019 Pac-12 Honorable Mention Freshman Offensive Player of the Year. He became the first true freshman quarterback in ASU program history to start the first game of the season.
By finishing the 2019 season with 2,943 passing yards and 17 touchdowns, Jayden moved into 11th in ASU single-season history.
The Obvious: The Trojans have three outstanding experienced veteran group of receivers for their Air Raid offense. Those headliners would be senior Tyler Vaughns (6-2, 190), junior Amon-Ra St. Brown (6-1, 190), and sophomore Drake London (6-5, 210).
The Not So Obvious: Arizona State has a Biletnikoff Preseason Watch List candidate in grad student Frank Darby (6-1, 200) from Lincoln High in Jersey City, New Jersey. A Pac-12 honorable mention selection in 2019, Darby posted a 133.1 NFL quarterback rating (31 catches for 616 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions) – good for the 21st-highest total among all wide receivers nationally and top-10 among those that return this season. Last season in Tempe, Darby had two TD receptions against the Trojans.
The Obvious: The Trojans have potentially an all-star inside linebacker candidate in junior Palaie Gaoteote lV (6-2, 250), who, according to Clay Helton, has raised his game under first-year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.
The Not So Obvious: As mentioned earlier, the Sun Devils have a standout linebacker in junior Merlin Robertson (6-3, 250) from Serra High in Carson, California. Robertson has been named to preseason watch lists for the Bronco Nagurski Award and the Bednarik Award. Merlin led the Sun Devils with three fumbles forced in 2019 and was third on the team with 72 tackles, adding five TFLs and an interception.
The Obvious: Repeatedly, one of the major question marks about the 2020 Trojans is the physicality and production of the offensive line.
The Not So Obvious: Addressing that question, Trojans’ OC Graham Harrell said, “As a unit, they have a chip on their shoulder for whatever reason.” One would assume that the “chip” comes from the fact that so many have repeatedly questioned their ability to perform at a championship level. In other words, the O-line is sick of hearing about it.
The Obvious: Saturday’s game will kickoff at 9 a.m. PST.
The Not So Obvious: Asked about the very early kickoff time, Trojans’ quarterback Kedon Slovis said, “When I was in Pop Warner, we played at 9 a.m. all the time.” Receiver teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown added, “Once I am up, I can play anytime.”
The Obvious: Chris Hawkins is a former Trojans defensive back (2014-17).
The Not So Obvious: Chris is currently ASU’s defensive backs coach and will try and scheme against some of the Trojans’ receivers he actually played with his senior season. FYI, on Saturday, Chris will coach from the press box.
The Obvious: Connor Murphy is a senior defensive lineman for the Trojans.
The Not So Obvious: Connor’s sister, Kayli, played basketball at Arizona State (2007-10) and competed in the 2011 Miss Arizona USA pageant.
The Obvious: Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton was pleased during training camp that there were no major injuries.
The Not So Obvious: Trojans, however, that are out of the ASU game and/or the season include ILB Jordan Iosefa (knee), ILB Solomon Tuliaupupu (foot), DL Trevor Trout (back), DL Jacob Lichtenstein (opt out), OL Frank Martin II (opt out), OL Bernard Schrimer (opt out), and WR Munir McClain (suspended).
The Obvious: The Trojans have seven players on their roster from the state of Arizona.
The Not So Obvious: Those Arizona natives on the Trojans’ roster include S Isaiah Pola-Mao of Phoenix’s Mountain Pointe HS, QB Kedon Slovis of Scottsdale’s Desert Mountain HS, DL Connor Murphy and OL Andrew Milek both of Phoenix’s Brophy Prep, OL AJ Mageo of Mesa’s Red Mountain HS, and WR Zach Wilson and PK Parker Lewis both of Scottsdale’s Saguaro HS.
The Obvious: California is a hotbed for ASU recruiting.
The Not So Obvious: The Sun Devils have 37 Californians on its roster.
The Obvious: And finally, overlooked in the season opener is the fact that this opener has also been designated as USC’s Homecoming Game.
The Not So Obvious: Thanks to Zoom and streaming, there will be an online Homecoming celebration on Friday and Saturday. According to information released, alumni can be part of the two-day celebration by going to alumni.usc.edu/homecoming.