As USC heads to Tempe, Ariz. to take on Arizona State in a pivotal matchup between Pac-12 South foes, the question surrounding the team is the same as it’s been throughout the entire season — can the Trojans’ offense finally hit its stride and match the play of its dominant defense?
The answer to that question will likely determine the outcome of Saturday’s game, and maybe even the team’s entire season. If the Trojans lose, they would fall to 0-2 in conference play, leaving them in a rather sizeable hole to dig themselves out of if they want to contend for the division championship.
“We feel good. Obviously we don’t look at it that way,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. “We don’t think we’re going to play to be 0-2; we’re going to play to be 4-1. We look forward to the challenge of going against a very talented, well-coached team.”
Against Arizona State, the key for the USC offense will be to hold its own against an extremely active Sun Devil front seven. ASU features two pass rushing stalwarts in defensive tackle Will Sutton and linebacker Carl Bradford, both of whom finished 2012 in the nation’s top 15 in sacks.
“They’re very aggressive and [use] multiple fronts,” Kiffin said. “As far as blitz packages, they bring the linebackers a lot. [Bradford] is a really great player in coverage and in rushing. He gave us a lot of issues last year. They can be a dominant defense, which we saw last year.”
The Trojans’ offensive line will have to play its best game, particularly in pass protection, for the rest of the offense to thrive. Against Utah State, USC allowed three sacks, including one allowed by redshirt freshman offensive tackle Chad Wheeler that resulted in a fumble.
“He’s young, but I think Chad has done a really good job,” Kiffin said. “Left tackle is a position where, a lot of times, you don’t notice [the player] until something goes wrong. He got beat for the sack-caused fumble, so I’m sure a lot of people noticed that. But there’s a lot of plays in there … where he’s holding his own. We’re excited about his continuing development as a freshman.”
As for redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler, he and the USC receivers are still in the process of establishing a rhythm. After completing a sizzling 15 of 17 passes against Boston College, he was 13 for 27 against Utah State.
Kessler and the passing game particularly struggled in the fourth quarter, going 0 for 6 on his pass attempts and failing to help the offense capitalize on good field position several times. Kiffin has stressed that Kessler needs to distribute the ball more evenly between his plethora of playmakers, particularly his tight ends — redshirt juniors Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble have combined for just 10 catches and one touchdown this season.
“As you can tell, Randall has been battling in there,” Kiffin said. “He has not been at full strength in games. We’ve been trying to get the ball more to Xavier. He scored a touchdown last week, and has been doing some good things. [Redshirt sophomore tailback] Tre [Madden] is our third-leading receiver, so we’re trying to get the ball around more and utilize our healthy guys.”
Madden and redshirt tailback Justin Davis have been integral for the Trojan offense, averaging a combined 151 rushing yards per game. Saturday might signal the return of senior tailback Silas Redd, who has missed the entire season while recovering from knee surgery.
Kiffin said he was hopeful Redd would play against ASU, and even Redd’s main competition at tailback hopes the senior will return soon.
“I’m definitely looking forward to Silas coming back,” Madden said. “He’s a great talent, and a great leader on our offense.”
The Trojans will continue to rely on its front seven against ASU’s offense. USC leads the nation in tackles for loss and is second in sacks.
Putting pressure on ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly will be critical, as Kelly was ranked No. 9 in the country in passer rating in 2012.
One of the key matchups for the USC defense will be its secondary against ASU wide receiver Jaelen Strong, a junior college transfer in his first year at ASU. Strong leads the team with 24 catches for 330 yards and two touchdowns. At 6-foot-4, 205 lbs., Strong presents a physical mismatch for the Trojans, who don’t have a cornerback on their roster listed taller than 6-foot-1.
On the ground, the Sun Devils are led by tailback Marion Grice, who leads the nation in touchdowns this season with eight scores.
The last time USC visited Tempe, the Trojans struggled mightily in the second half, giving up 22 unanswered points in a 43-22 loss. The fans at Sun Devil Stadium were raucous and gave the Trojans fits on offense. Crowd noise could be an even bigger hindrance for a USC offense that features several inexperienced players.
“I’m just gonna be there for my guys as much as possible,” junior center and team captain Marcus Martin said. “I’m just gonna give as much support as I can and try to keep them focused. [You] can’t worry about the crowd noise, just worry about executing each play, and have fun with your brothers.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is set for 7:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
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