Technically, every game counts.
And technically, USC has already started its conference schedule (and is 0-1).
But the preseason is over.
This, of course, is a lie. There is no preseason in college football. Week one is week one, and the games all count just the same in the annals of history.
But still … the preseason is over.
Conference games are all about familiarity. You know your opponent. Your opponent knows you. You can remember the last however many seasons and all of your games against this team, and these players, and this coaching staff. You remember the hotel you stayed at and the locker you used.
When sophomore defensive lineman Leonard Williams lines up against the Sun Devils this Saturday, he’ll probably remember he had his only career interception against them last year. Same goes for junior linebacker Lamar Dawson. Junior wide receiver Marqise Lee might remember ASU as the squad that handed him his first ever loss as a Trojan: a tremendously lackluster 43-22 defeat that featured four USC turnovers.
The same cannot be said of any of the Trojans first four games. USC has actually played Hawai’i three times in the last four seasons — more than they’ve played Washington State — but still, Hawai’i doesn’t have the intensity of a true conference game. Neither does Washington State, despite the fact that the Trojans lost, and it actually was a conference game.
Arizona State is a different story. The Trojans have played the Sun Devils in each of the last 18 years, and this will make it 19. That level of familiarity breeds an intensity that simply cannot be achieved in a nonconference game. And that intensity hasn’t boded well for the Trojans in recent years. USC has lost its Pac-12 road opener in four of the last five seasons (the lone win being at Washington State in 2010, which in the past would warrant a joke about how that doesn’t really count), and this will be the Trojans first true road test of the year — and one of the toughest, as Sun Devil Stadium is notoriously rowdy.
Plus, it’s a night game, which is conducive to even rowdier fans, and a young offensive line that starts two underclassman on the left side, and you can see how this will be a different sort of beast for the Trojans. For redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler, this will be his first try at managing offensive communication — the huddle, audible, snap count — with some real noise to deal with.
“I remember playing there two years ago. It was a very hostile environment,” said Kessler, who redshirted that season but made the trip with the team. “I enjoyed that. You like getting up for big games like that.”
Of course, Kessler went on to say that there is nothing particularly special about a Pac-12 game, and that it’s “just another opportunity for us.”
Look, I get that. Every game counts and part of any team’s M.O. is not getting too amped for any one particular contest — keep the focus internal. But if the Trojans step on to the field at Sun Devil Stadium and treat it like Hawai’i … Well, I don’t think I need to explain what will probably happen. And neither does junior cornerback Josh Shaw.
“Some people may say it’s not [more intense],” said Shaw of conference play. “But you can just walk in to practice and tell. The crowd noise is pumping. This is a Pac-12 game.”
Now Utah State is a good team, no doubt. People seem to forget they won 11 games last year, and their two losses came by a total of five points. Hell, it’s conceivable that the Aggies are better than the Sun Devils. But the reality is this: Saturday’s contest will be the toughest of the season so far for this Trojan team, who haven’t exactly looked stellar in their previous ones.
Regardless of the opponent, or even the venue, this is a Pac-12 conference game. USC is 0-1 so far.
“Any Given Satruday” runs on Thursdays, ironically. To explain to Nick how this makes no sense, or comment on this column, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dailytrojan.com.
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