1. Will the penalties pile up?
In Arizona State’s overtime victory over then-No. 21 Missouri, the two teams combined for a total of 224 penalty yards. Over the last few years, the Sun Devils have been one of the most undisciplined teams in the country, and the trend has continued in 2011. Arizona State ranks 11th nationally in penalties (24) and seventh in penalty yardage (241). Likewise, USC has accumulated 21 penalties for 199 yards. Whichever team can avoid the yellow flags more efficiently will hold a distinct advantage.
2. Who will win the turnover battle?
In the first three games, Arizona State has thrown three interceptions and lost three fumbles while forcing just one interception and recovering three fumbles. USC has thrown one interception and lost three fumbles while forcing one interception and recovering two fumbles.
Though the Sun Devils are better than the Trojans at forcing turnovers, they are also more prone to coughing the ball up. USC coach Lane Kiffin said early in the week that forcing turnovers were a point of emphasis in practice. The turnover battle will be crucial in a game that is anticipated to be rather close.
3. How will Brock Osweiler fare against the USC secondary?
The 6-foot-8 junior quarterback has put up some solid numbers thus far. He has completed 66 percent (68 for 103) of his passes so far for 871 yards, but he is 43-for-58 (74 percent) at home. The unusually tall quarterback has thrown three interceptions, though. Kiffin commented earlier in the week that Osweiler is very mobile and presents unique challenges. To date, he has been sacked seven times and he might be forced to scramble often against a USC defensive line that has held steady early on.
4. Is Saturday’s contest pivotal for positioning in the Pac-12 South?
The preseason media poll picked USC, Arizona State and Utah to finish in the top three of the Pac-12 South division. Two weeks ago, the Trojans edged out the Utes, and a win over the Sun Devils would give them the crucial head-to-head tiebreaker over the most serious contenders.
USC is not eligible to play in the Pac-12 championship game, but that does not exclude them from finishing first in the division. A victory would give them a one-and-a-half game lead over the Sun Devils. After Saturday, the Sun Devils have a slightly easier conference schedule. Though USC must play No. 5 Stanford and Washington, Arizona State draws Oregon State and Washington State.
5. Can Arizona State finally get over the hump against USC?
USC has defeated Arizona State the last 11 times the two teams have met. In each of the past two meetings, the Sun Devils have given USC nearly everything it could handle. In 2009, USC escaped Tempe with a 14-9 win despite only gaining 258 yards on offense. The defense held the Sun Devils at bay, including Will Harris’s 55-yard interception return for a touchdown. In 2010, the Trojans needed to return a blocked PAT for two points and a field goal with three minutes to go to squeeze out a 34-33 victory. One factor playing in ASU’s favor: They have not lost to a team ranked outside of the top six since November 2009.