In the opening game of what could be one of the most unorthodox Pac-12 seasons in the conference’s history, the No. 20 USC Trojans are set to host the Arizona State Sun Devils at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. After an extended offseason, the teams will look to start their respective campaigns off with a win, all the while adjusting to starting their schedules much later than usual.
“I’m really happy for our kids and staff,” head coach Clay Helton said Monday in a virtual press conference. “Now, to have the opportunity to play the game we love, we’re just very appreciative and grateful … I’ve got a lot of respect for [head] coach [Herm] Edwards and the job he has done. He’s put together a really good football team.”
Recent history indicates that the game should be an offensive affair, with each of the last 10 meetings between the teams yielding more than 55 points combined.
USC’s offense will look to expand upon the pass-heavy scheme from the previous season, led by sophomore Kedon Slovis, the nation’s most accurate returning quarterback. Another year of experience will do the unit good, as Slovis will look to limit his turnovers after throwing nine interceptions as a freshman. His primary target will be junior Amon-Ra St. Brown, who amassed over 1,000 yards receiving and six touchdown catches last season, though redshirt senior Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Drake London round out an elite receiving trio.
“You can’t replace experience,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Graham Harrell said. “I think where [Slovis] improved the most is getting [more] live reps … We had to make the most of the quarantine. We were able to watch a lot of tape together and get on the same page. I think if the play caller and the quarterback are on the same page and seeing the game the same way, you have an advantage.”
The defensive side of the ball is where the Trojans will look for improvement from last season. They were 78th in the nation in points allowed per game with 29.4. The run defense will be an area of focus, needing improvement from last season’s unit, which allowed more than 100 yards on the ground in all but two games.
New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who coached at the University of Texas among other schools before taking the job at USC, is optimistic about the unit’s readiness coming out of preseason training.
“We’re all very excited to get going,” Orlando said. “We had a stretch of time [during camp] where we really challenged [the players], and they have done an outstanding job of embracing what we want to try to get accomplished.”
Having lost its all-time leading rusher Eno Benjamin to the NFL, the Arizona State offense is in need of another playmaker. One replacement could be sophomore Jayden Daniels. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound quarterback has a light frame, aiding his running abilities. In terms of passing, he threw for nearly 3,000 yards in his freshman season, making him an all-around threat on the offensive side of the ball.
“What’s really neat about this game is that you’re gonna see two of the better quarterbacks in the country right off the bat,” Helton said. “I was extremely impressed with [Daniels] last year. His production was evident both in the passing game and how he creates athletically.”
Defensively, the Sun Devils were inconsistent last season and are looking to steady the ship. The unit is led by junior linebacker Darien Butler, who was the team’s leading tackler last season as well as the first ever ASU true sophomore team captain. The most notable change on the defensive side of the ball comes in the form of new co-defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, former Cincinnati Bengals head coach, alongside Antonio Pierce.
Harrell knows his offensive unit will have to be ready for a challenge, even if Lewis is a few years removed from coaching in the NFL.
“It makes it difficult. Obviously it’s been a long time since [Lewis] has called a defense,” Harrell said. “I’m sure he was pretty influential in what they were doing at Cincinnati … We don’t necessarily try to out-scheme people. We’re gonna try to go execute what we do at a really high level.”
For the players, it will be a game like no other, with the kickoff time at 9 a.m. and no fans in the stadium.
“I don’t think any of us have played in an empty stadium in any of our lives,” St. Brown said. “We’re gonna have to count on our team to come up with some juice and some energy … I don’t see all the hype around [the 9 a.m. kickoff]. I can play at any time once I’m up. It’s just an earlier game for me, it’s nothing too crazy.”
With an abbreviated, six-game season, neither team will have much margin for error in terms of contending for a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
“I talked to our team about pouring ourselves into each and every week,” Helton said. “If you wanna win a championship, you’re gonna have to look at perfection … If you get caught up looking at what’s three, four, five, seven weeks down the road and not focusing on what’s right in front of you, you’re gonna look up and get your butt beat.”