It was more than a tip of the cap by Arizona State coach Todd Graham, when asked about No. 19 USC during his weekly Monday news conference.
“They’re very, very, very talented,” he said, toeing a line between compliment and hyperbole.
Past the midway point of the season, though, the very, very, very talented Trojans are 6-3 overall and 4-3 in Pac-12 play, standing in second place in the conference’s south division after consecutive losses at the hands of Arizona and Oregon. They won’t catch much of a break anytime soon either, as Graham brings yet another high-scoring spread offense to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday.
Arizona State, which averages 37 points per game, good for 22nd nationally, squares off against host USC at noon.
And so the Trojans, one week after giving up a school-record 62 points versus Oregon, will be forced to hope for some sort of a quick fix on defense to contend with the Sun Devils’ unit after “everything” was wrong with their defensive performance one week ago, according to USC coach Lane Kiffin.
It wasn’t just the scheme against the Ducks. It wasn’t just the execution. It wasn’t just Oregon, either. It was, well, everything.
“If you give up those kind of numbers, it has to be everything,” Kiffin said. “You can’t give up that amount of points and that amount of yards without it being everything overall. And so it was a combination of every aspect of defense you could think of for it to get to the level it was at.”
That level has been, of course, discouraging. During the last two games, the Trojans have surrendered a total of 101 points and 1,318 yards, including a school-record 730 yards against the Ducks.
Chip Kelly’s bunch also scored a touchdown on nine of its 13 drives against USC.
“I’ve never heard of that many yards,” said Monte Kiffin, the team’s assistant head coach for defense, on Saturday night following the 62-51 loss. “It’s mind-boggling.”
One possible solution to a seemingly growing defensive problem appears to be trotting wide receiver Marqise Lee out at defensive back.
Lee, who has caught 88 passes for 1,286 yards and 12 touchdowns this season and leads the country in all-purpose yards, is considered a preeminent Heisman Trophy contender as the result of his performances on offense and special teams. His candidacy might grow even further Saturday against the Sun Devils, by lining up at cornerback or safety.
Naturally, it might help USC’s struggling unit, as well.
“We’ve looked at some defensive situations for the first time this week with him out there,” Lane Kiffin said during his post-practice press conference Thursday. “That may present itself Saturday.”
Previously, following the Oct. 4 game against Utah in Salt Lake City, Lee lobbied the Trojans’ third-year coach for the chance to play on the defensive side, at corner. Nonetheless, he has remained solely on offense, in spite of the petitioning.
The 6-foot-1 sophomore had played safety at Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, Calif., and was recruited primarily by USC as a defensive back.
The Trojans, unmistakably, will need some sort of help in the secondary against Arizona State’s passing attack. The unit is engineered by sophomore and first-year starter at quarterback, Taylor Kelly, who has grown in the starting role. The Idaho native has thrown for 2,161 yards and 20 touchdowns on 65.6 percent passing. Not to mention, he’s only thrown six interceptions and has 383 rushing yards, which is the third best on the team.
The previous two quarterbacks to face off against USC’s secondary — Arizona’s Matt Scott and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota — threw for a combined 673 yards and seven touchdowns to just one interception.
Arizona State (5-4, 3-3), though, is coming off three straight losses, falling to Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State during the last three weeks.
Saturday’s game is scheduled to be televised by the Pac-12 Networks. The noon kickoff is also the earliest kickoff time for a USC home game since a 1998 contest against Purdue, according to the conference.