By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com
The Obvious: The unranked USC Trojans (1-3, 0-2 Pac-12) have found themselves a dynamic quarterback in redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, but now they must hope to can find an improved defense before they face another Pac-12 South Division rival, undefeated and explosive Arizona State (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12), this Saturday evening in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (5:30 p.m. PT).
The Not So Obvious: Because of the results from last weekend’s Pac-12 South opponents, the Trojans still find themselves in a position that while needing somebody to knock off Utah twice, they can maintain their dreams of a division title by making sure they defeat schools in their division. The Trojans, UCLA, and Arizona, have a South Division loss with only No. 18 Utah, ASU, and upstart Colorado unblemished in divisional play. In other words, the Trojans are in the thick of the race but can’t afford another divisional loss. Through four games, the combined record of Trojans opponents is 8-1.
The Obvious: The Trojans opened an 8-point favorite over ASU.
The Not So Obvious: Last season, the Trojan waxed the Sun Devils 42-14 in Tempe in one of the most humiliating losses in ASU coach Todd Graham’s career. If you remember, Cody Kessler, who started at quarterback last weekend for the Cleveland Browns, threw for 375 yards and five touchdowns in the stunning victory. Last week, ASU got the attention of the Pac-12 when it outlasted Cal, 51-41, in a scintillating shootout. The Sun Devils are off to their best start since 2007. FYI, the Trojans lead the all-time series with ASU 20-12. Since 2010, The Sun Devils have scored 30 or more points four times in the last six meetings between the two teams.
The Obvious: The Trojans/ASU game will be nationally televised live on FOX (5:30 p.m. PT)
The Not So Obvious: The FOX broadcasters for Saturday evening’s kickoff will be Joe Davis (play-by-play), Brady Quinn (analysis), and Jenny Taft (sidelines).
The Obvious: Saturday’s Trojans radio game broadcast of the USC/ ASU game will air live on ESPNLA 710 AM at 5:30 p.m. (PDT) with Pete Arbogast (play by play), John Jackson (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline).
The Trojans four-hour ESPNLA 710 pregame (1:30 p.m. PT) and two-hour post-game show on Saturday will feature Arbogast, Jackson, Moore, Shaun Cody, Chris Fisher, Travis Rodgers, WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz, and WeAreSC contributor Jeremy Hogue.
The Not So Obvious: The ASU broadcast can be heard on flagship station KTAR 620 AM with Fran Healey (play-by-play), Jeff Van Raaphorst (analyst), and Derek Hagan (sideline). The Pac-12 game can also be heard on Sirius XM satellite radio or on the Tuneln Radio app.
The Obvious: The Los Angeles weather on Saturday calls for sunny with a high of 79, humidity at 57 percent, and a low of 59 degrees.
The Not So Obvious: We’ll see whether the Trojans can rebound from their last-second Utah loss and whether the offense will continue to impress with Sam Darnold now firmly entrenched at quarterback. As simple as it sounds, take away the first half turnovers by the Cardinal and Gold and Utah probably wouldn’t have had that end-of-game winning drive. We’ll see if the Trojans will place greater emphasis on the running game, namely senior Justin Davis, who was having a whale of a game until he suddenly didn’t see the field in the final quarter. Sometimes you outcoach yourself in those types of situations, but Helton said this week he’d like to see Davis receive 20-25 “touches” on Saturday and in the future. We’ll also see whether running backs Ronald Jones ll and Aca’Cedric Ware can add spark to the running game. We’ll also see whether the Trojans increase their tight end usage on pass plays and spread the ball around to different receivers like they did against Utah. Of course the biggest question on offense is whether the Trojans offensive line will dominate the ASU front seven and their assortment of exotic blitzes. Obviously the ASU defense, despite its complexity, is vulnerable, having given up 41 points to Cal.
Defensively, the Trojans will face yet again another dual-threat quarterback in sophomore Manny Wilkins, a native of Novato (Calif.) San Marin High, who can give the Cardinal and Gold fits with his legs (4.7 avg.). We’ll see whether the Sun Devils uptempo attack will challenge the interior of the Trojans defense with a couple of very good running backs in juniors DeMario Richard and Kalen Ballage (6.7 avg.). In terms of receivers, the Trojans defense will be tested by the likes of feared senior Tim White and freshman N’Keal Harry. Whether the Trojans defense, led by sophomore inside linebacker Cameron Smith, can stop and not get worn down by the high-powered Sun Devils is a key to the game. Like last week at Utah, this one could also come down to who has the ball last. Trojans fans are hoping that some painful lessons were learned, addressed, and corrected from the loss at Utah.
Trojans special team play continues to be impressive. In fact, objectively, one could say that the special teams play has been the most consistent and impressive of all the units. We’ll see whether ASU is foolish enough to kick to Adoree’ Jackson. Just ask Utah what happens when you do. Kicker Matt Boermeester’s kickoffs have been touchback impressive, and his field goal productivity has been a major asset to an offense that can shoot itself in the foot on more than one occasion. As for punting, redshirt sophomore Chris Tilbey has done a very good job, but the Trojans offense would like to keep Tilbey off the field as much as possible.
The bottom lines to Saturday’s game is which defense will be the difference against the other team’s offense? The Trojans are the favorites, but whether they can slow down ASU enough to score enough points themselves will only be answered after 60 minutes of football. In the end, we’ll find out whether the Trojans can outscore ASU.
The Obvious: More and more scrutiny is being focused on the Trojans defense and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
The Not So Obvious: Asked this week about stopping the ASU offense, Pendergast said, “Everybody has just got to do their job. We have to do a better of fitting the run and understanding where our help is not only in the running game but the passing game. We have to be a lot more consistent. We came out of playing a pro-style team to a spread team in a short week.”
How would Pendergast compare last season’s ASU offense to the present? Pendergast said, “They’re very similar, but they have a different coordinator. There’s some different wrinkles, but they are very similar and very explosive. That’s why their (offensive) numbers are what they are. Hopefully, we can get off blocks more at the line of scrimmage when there’s some form of play-action. When the quarterback goes back three steps, our guys have to get off their blocks (to get a sack). The coverages are tied into that as well. The pass rush alone, we have to be tighter in coverages and make the quarterback, hopefully, hold the ball. Regardless of what we do, our guys have to win their matchups.”
The Obvious: The Trojans need a win desperately, and ASU is trying to prove they aren’t just “another overrated Sun Devils team.”
The Not So Obvious: If ASU defeats the Trojans, it would be the fourth victory in the last six games against the Men of Troy after an 11-game losing streak from 2000-10.
The Obvious: The Trojans need to stick together in what is rapidly becoming a difficult season.
The Not So Obvious: Senior captain and inside linebacker Michael Hutchings says, “As captains, make sure you have a purpose for everybody and have everybody a purpose for a final goal as far as the season. When you get down in a hole like this (1-3), it’s tough to get everybody on the same page and have that final goal, which is a Pac-12 championship. That’s what you want to set your goals and sights on, taking it week by week.”
The Obvious: Going back, the Trojans and the Sun Devils have a long history of having blowouts and wild comebacks.
The Not So Obvious: The 2016 season marks the 20th anniversary of USC’s first overtime game, a 48-35 loss at Arizona State. In fact, USC played three overtime contests that season. Troy has played in nine OT games in its history.
The Obvious: Defending ASU’s high powered offense won’t be easy, given the fact the Trojans defense has consistently had issues throughout this season in one form or another.
The Not Obvious: Asked what the USC defense must do to slow or stop the Sun Devils offense, especially quarterback Manny Wilkins and the Pac-12’s other dual-threat quarterbacks, linebacker Michael Hutchings said, “We going to see mobile quarterbacks the next several weeks. Mobile quarterbacks, we saw it last week with (Utah quarterback) Troy Williams. This week it’s Wilkens. It’s something you have to be prepared for in this conference. It’s something you can’t be ready just for one week but be prepared for anytime.”
Asked to compare Utah’s quarterback Troy Williams and ASU’s Manny Wilkins, Hutchings said, “They’re all mobile and dynamic. They’re an extra person that you have to be accountable for as a defense and that’s always a challenge. As you saw last week (Utah), they had a lot of quarterback runs and this week will be the same. This guy may be an even better runner. It’s always a challenge when the quarterback is a runner because that adds an extra element to the offense and to prepare for.
“We have to be assignment sound. I think that is what has hurt us the past few weeks, big blown assignments and coming up clutch in key situations like third down and long. Sometimes it’s fourth downs and coming up clutch. We’re being put into the correct spot by the coaches, so it’s up to the players to make plays now. We haven’t made that yet and aren’t yet comfortable on the field.”
The Obvious: Trojans first-year head coach Clay Helton, whose record as the Trojans permanent head coach now reads 1-4, is now in the media hot seat.
The Not So Obvious: Now in his 5th season at ASU, Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham has not been shy in the past in saying “this is my best team.” Well, things haven’t turned out that way in recent seasons, and Graham’s athletic director, Ray Anderson, is on record as telling his coach to change the approach. This summer on a local phoenix television station, Anderson said, “One of the things, very frankly, that we’re trying to do better around here is to talk less and deliver more. We’ll be minimum on the bravado and all the predictions about greatness and just let our play speak for us.”
The Obvious: Every head football coach of teams that play the Trojans this season speak glowing of USC’s talent.
The Not So Obvious: According to ASU head coach Todd Graham, “They (USC) are as talented as any team we’ll play. They are probably the most physically talented team, speed-wise, that we are going to play against. Their record is not indicative of what kind of team they are.”
The Obvious: The 2016 Trojans offense is averaging 22.0 points per game while the Sun Devils defense is allowing 34.25 points per outing.
The Not So Obvious: The 2016 ASU offense is averaging 48.75 points per game while the Trojans defense is allowing 29.2 points per game.
The Obvious: Thus far in 2016, one shining star on defense has been sophomore inside linebacker Cameron Smith.
The Not So Obvious: ASU also has a Cameron Smith on its roster, but their Cam is a junior wide receiver.
The Obvious: Timmy White and Lonnie White were two standout former Trojan football players during the mid-80s.
The Not So Obvious: ASU wide receiver Tim White is the son of former Trojans wide receiver Timmy White and the nephew of the late Lonnie White, who was a noted sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times.
The Obvious: During each Trojans home game, there is usually recognition of athletes, contributors, and/or donors.
The Not So Obvious: On Saturday, there will be a halftime salute to USC’s 2016 Rio Olympians and an on-field breast cancer prevention and awareness presentation with Keck Medicine of USC.
The Obvious: One of the highlights of every Trojans home game in the Coliseum is the halftime performance of The Spirit of Troy, the University of Southern California Marching Band.
The Not So Obvious: During halftime on Saturday, The Spirit of Troy will celebrate USC’s proud Olympic heritage and the Trojan athletes who represented the university in Rio de Janeiro. Seventeen USC Olympians representing seven countries — including gold medalists Allyson Felix, Kaleigh Gilchrist, Kami Craig and Dalilah Muhammad — are scheduled to appear on the field to be recognized.
The Trojan Marching Band’s halftime presentation will feature two iconic Olympic anthems: John Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” and “Bugler’s Dream” by Leo Arnaud. The TMB will also perform the 1984 weightlifting theme “Power” and the theme from Rocky, “Gonna Fly Now,” both by composer Bill Conti.
The Obvious: The Trojans have but one player from Arizona (DE Connor Murphy of Brophy Prep in Phoenix), and it’s expected that Murphy will see action against ASU.
The Not So Obvious: ASU has 32 players from the state of California.
The Obvious: And finally, many Trojans supporters are starting to wonder where this season is headed.
The Not So Obvious: If you think that the Trojans players have lost hope, you haven’t talked to safety Chris Hawkins. This week at practice, Hawkins said, “We just have got to play football. I feel like we lost those three games, but none of those teams were just outright better than us. I feel like we made some mistakes in the Stanford game and the Alabama game, as well, and some last week, as well. I feel like if you don’t have any mistakes, I feel like we win those games.”