As the Trojans come off an ugly loss in Utah, they look to right the ship at home against Arizona State on Saturday after a performance that left unanswered questions.
The team surrendered a two-touchdown lead, giving up 34 unanswered points as Utah stormed back to win the game in convincing fashion. The Trojans now stand at 4-3 with slim chances of making the Pac-12 Championship.
They’ll have the perfect opportunity to get back on track this week, as they face a struggling 3-4 ASU team at the Coliseum, where the Trojans still hold the second longest home game win streak in college football.
“This is a big Pac-12 game that keeps you tied up at the top [of the Pac-12 South], and it’s a game that we need,” head coach Clay Helton said.
USC offense vs. ASU defense
USC’s lack of offensive identity manifested against Utah when the defense failed to find a way to move the ball. The run game remained stagnant, just like it had the previous week, as they faced a dominant Utah rush defense. The team gained only 73 yards on 31 carries but most of that yardage came in garbage time.
The offensive line has struggled to create any kind of consistent push off the ball in the run game for weeks, making it difficult for running backs senior Aca’Cedric Ware, sophomore Stephen Carr or redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai to get going in the past two contests. The passing game fared just as poorly against Utah which presented a major issue as that had been the Trojans’ only source of offense the previous week. The deep ball that had been so successful against Colorado vanished, as freshman quarterback JT Daniels went 6-of-16 for 89 yards and threw two interceptions. A hit late in the second half knocked him out of the game with a concussion. His status for the ASU game is still unclear. As of Thursday, Daniels had not cleared concussion protocol. If he isn’t able to play, sophomore quarterback Jack Sears will take his first game snaps as a Trojan after redshirt sophomore Matt Fink broke his ribs against Utah.
“He was able to throw a few routes on air today, but he has not been cleared for contact,” Helton said after Thursday’s practice. “With it being late in the week and still not cleared, its 50/50 at best if he’s even cleared. It’s probably leaning more toward not.”
The way the coaching staff approaches the offensive game plan will probably vary heavily based on which quarterback begins the game under center. If Daniels is the starter, expect the offense to try to replicate what worked for them against Colorado with an explosive deep passing game.
“I think [head coach Tee Martin has] done a nice job of saying, ‘Hey we’re not going to reinvent the wheel, we’re going to do things that [Sears] can handle,’” Helton said.
The one thing that has worked for the Trojans is junior receiver Michael Pittman — he’s been the only consistent bright spot on the offense, as he’s gone for 262 yards and three touchdowns in the last two contests.
Luckily for the Trojans, they’ll face a Sun Devil defense that’s ranked No. 65 in pass defense and No. 66 in rushing defense, offering them the perfect opponent against which to find their groove.
“I thought we paid ultra attention to detail this week on trying to get fundamental technique things fixed, so we’re not losing those one on one battles that we lost last week,” Helton said.
ASU offense vs. USC defense
The ASU offense is a three-headed monster, led by redshirt senior quarterback Manny Wilkins. Wilkins has played at a high level this year, completing about 63 percent of his passes for nearly 1,800 yards and 11 touchdowns compared to only two interceptions.
He benefits from having one of the best receivers in the country to throw to in junior N’Keal Harry, who will likely be the first receiver to have his name called in next year’s NFL Draft. Harry is a dynamic force on the outside, with tremendous size at 6-foot-4 and special explosiveness. He’s accumulated 572 yards and six touchdowns on the year. The duo will be a tough challenge for a USC secondary that was shredded last weekend, as Utah junior quarterback Tyler Huntley torched them for 341 yards and four touchdowns.
Both USC safeties struggled mightily against Utah. Senior Marvell Tell and freshman Talanoa Hufanga both found themselves lost in coverage and missing tackles badly throughout the night.
One of the few bright spots for the Trojan pass defense from last week was the performance of the pass rush, which collected five sacks despite having been subpar throughout the year and losing their best player in senior linebacker Porter Gustin due to injury.
However, the tackling defense displayed will be a serious problem if it carries into this matchup. Sun Devils sophomore running back Eno Benjamin is a playmaker in the backfield, with 753 yards and seven touchdowns. His ability to make defenders miss in open space could be a serious issue for the Trojan defense if they play like they did last week.
“They’ve had a good week of preparation and now it’s time to go play the game,” Helton said. “It’s going to be fun to play in the daylight and be back in the Coliseum.”
Prediction: USC 24, ASU 20
Though in their current condition it’s not a stretch to think USC could lose to any team, especially if Daniels can’t play, expect them to find a way to keep their home win streak alive. The ASU defense shouldn’t be too tough of a challenge, allowing the offense to find a bit of a groove and for Daniels to regain some confidence. Though the ASU offense features serious playmakers across the board, the USC defense will likely continue to bring a solid pass rush and improve their tackling. Expect them to pull this one out — although it might not be in impressive fashion.