Here are five burning questions to watch as No. 21 USC hosts Arizona State.
1. Will the defense step up?
For the third straight week, Monte Kiffin's defensive unit will face a team that employs a spread offense. Taylor Kelly, a dual-threat quarterback, has thrown for 2,161 yards and 20 touchdowns so far this season and leads a Sun Devils offense tied for second in scoring offense (37 points/game) in Pac-12 play and fifth in total offense (457.8 yards/game). As has been noted, the most glaring issue in the Trojans' last two losses has been the play of the defense, which surrendered 1218 yards and 14 touchdowns combined against Arizona and Oregon. Coach Lane Kiffin went so far as to call out the defensive unit, noting "everything" went wrong in last weekend's loss to the Ducks.
"I think if we were to single either one of those out and say it was scheme or execution, I think we'd be wrong because if you give up those kind of numbers, it has to be everything," Kiffin said.
2. Can USC show discipline again?
For the most part, the Trojans played a relatively clean game against Oregon, committing just six penalties for 25 yards on the night. Prior to the contest, though, USC was far from mistake-free, as they had been penalized for at least 65 yards in every game, had not committed fewer than seven penalties in a game and ranked dead last in the nation in penalties. The Trojans hung around just enough against Oregon, and a big part of that stems from the fact that USC played with much more self-control compared to previous weeks.
3. Will USC take care of the ball?
Another glaring issue that has come back to haunt the Trojans is their carelessness with the football. Against Oregon, USC turned the ball over in the red zone twice — once on a Matt Barkley pick in the end zone in the first quarter and once on a Marqise Lee fumble right before halftime. Take away those two turnovers and the Trojans might very well have won the game. In fact, in the last two games, USC has a total of eight turnovers (four interceptions, four fumbles lost). With as potent as the Sun Devils' offense can be, the Trojans cannot afford to give teams extra opportunities to hang points on the board.
4. Can the offensive line protect Matt Barkley?
The Sun Devils rank second in the nation with 38 sacks and first with 84 tackles for loss (TFL). Leading Arizona State's defensive unit up front is Will Sutton, who has recorded nine and 15.5, respectively. Their linebacking core (Brandon McGee, Chris Young, Carl Bradford) is something to watch for, too, as the three have combined for 15 sacks and 32.5 TFL. USC's young offensive line has been inconsistent at times, and there really hasn't been a clear cut starting left tackle for the Trojans all year long.
5. Will USC be focused?
The Trojans have lost two straight, and the Sun Devils come in losers of three in a row, but that means almost next to nothing. USC still plays UCLA and Notre Dame — both rivalry games — and could have a shot at the Pac-12 title game, but they must first take care of Arizona State. It's clearly obvious their full attention should be on the Sun Devils, but all year, this team really hasn't played that way.
Kickoff is scheduled for noon and the game will be televised on the Pac-12 Network.
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