The Trojans (3-1) enters Saturday's contest looking to continue their dominant streak against Arizona State, winners of 11 of their last 12 games, facing quite the stiff test in Tempe from the Arizona State Sun Devils. Without further ado, here is the best and brightest from quite the knowledgable writer who dives beneath the basic story lines that plaster main stream media early on this season.
Q: Under Todd Graham, the Sun Devils have been one of the least penalized teams in the nation, and have played much better football at home. If penalties are not the case, then what is the one area where ASU has the greatest advantage over USC this weekend?
Cody Ulm: At home, Arizona State's biggest advantage is tempo. Before running into the brick wall that is Stanford, ASU was averaging about 22.3 seconds per play on 86.5 plays per game (26th in the nation in terms of pace). That, paired with the Tempe heat, has an innate ability to wear opposing teams down. On the other end, the Trojans play one of the slowest, most deliberate styles in the country on a play-per-second basis. You might think that bodes well after seeing how Stanford was able to control the tempo. But the Trojans are a team that just went 3-for-14 on third down in their last contest against a considerably less talented defense. USC's defense is not going to get a breather unless the offense figures out a way to prolong some drives. And once the Sun Devils get rolling, they can chip away at even the most elite of defenses.
Q: The Sun Devils have a great combination of talent on the offense starting with QB Taylor Kelly. Who are some of the weapons on the outside that could put a major scare into the Trojans secondary?
Ulm: So far Marion Grice has been an automatic bet in the red zone and D.J. Foster has been a slot machine. But no man has been more unstoppable than JUCO transfer WR Jaelen Strong. Strong made Stanford's All-American caliber secondary look silly Saturday to the tune of 12 receptions, 168 yards and one touchdown. Through three games, it's looking as if Kelly and Strong already have the back-shoulder throw down on lock. And even when Kelly isn't clicking, Strong has shown an ability to mask his quarterbacks mistakes. He's already one of the best jump ball receivers in the conference and his underneath routes are becoming more polished on a game-by-game basis. The scariest part of it all is that Todd Graham continually reminds the media that Strong isn't even fully in shape yet. Strong wasn't allowed to participate in ASU's offseason conditioning program with his transfer papers still pending and he didn't officially join the team until the first day of fall camp. He's only going to get better.
Q: Much of the national conversation surrounding the ASU defense rides with California-native Will Sutton. Who else can ravage the USC offensive line and get tremendous pressure on the quarterback?
Ulm: Good question. With Sutton a perpetual target for double teams and the rest of the front seven either injured or underachieving, there's hasn't been as many sacks as expected. That said, LB Carl Bradford has quietly been building off his breakthrough 2012 campaign even though the numbers aren't exactly there. Bradford laid some devastating hits on Kevin Hogan last Saturday that would have left the average quarterback lying motionless in the turf. If you're an avid Trojan follower, you probably can recall his havoc-filled final stat line from last year's matchup: 10 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one sack. And if you're having amnesia, go ahead and Google "Carl Bradford + USC" to see the incredible shot of him flying kamikaze style at Matt Barkley. Bradford already told KVTK-TV's Tim Ring that he "just wants to kill" the Trojans when asked earlier this week. For that reason alone, he's probably a name to watch.
Q: Which ASU team should we expect, the free-flowing 4th quarter squad that moved the ball with exact precision or the physically over-matched squad that was taken to town 29-0 against Stanford?
Ulm: I'll answer your question with a question: are the Trojans capable of matching Stanford's national-championship-quality physicality on play-for-play basis? If the answer is no, and I think it is, don't expect to see the team you saw through the first three quarters. At the same time, they're not going to be the same fourth quarter team that moved the chains through the air at will. Asking Kelly to drop back 50-60 times in a game is far from ideal. Arizona State's run game had underachieved mightily in September but I expect Graham to feed Grice, Foster and Deantre LewisSaturday until it gets back on track. Even so, Trojan fans would be wise to remember that Kelly has the weapons and accuracy to sling it around when need be.
Q: ASU arguably played one of their worst offensive games of the year last season against the USC defense, which has only gotten better under Clancy Pendergast. Where do you feel the Sun Devils can be most successful moving the football and to that point, is it merely the home crowd that will draw out a much-more inspired performance?
Ulm: Probably in the quick, intermediate throw department. As I just touched on, I do expect Graham to make a concerted effort to get the run game going. I have a lot of respect from what I've seen of USC's defense this season but they're still no Stanford. Yes, Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard will get to Kelly a few times. I just can't see Arizona State's offensive line getting consistently manhandled the way they did against the Cardinal. At this point, that's just purely speculation though. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Trojans defense holds Arizona State under 3.5 yards per carry. If that happens, it's going to be real tough to get the big plays down field going.
Q: What's your predicted score and who will be the ultimate difference maker in the game?
ASU 31, USC 20. I'm going to be real honest with you: I have little to no faith that USC's offense can keep pace with the Devils. I'm aware what Tre Madden and Justin Davis offer and I still don't think that will be enough. Arizona State's run defense woes have been a bit exaggerated this season. The Devils have been susceptible to big plays off the edge but beyond that, they've done a respectable job containing the damage. Cody Kessler isn't scaring anyone so I don't see the compounding injury issues along ASU's front seven to be an issue. They'll be able to stack the box and feed off the home crowd noise for some big stops in the backfield. As the three-and-outs begin to pile up for the Trojan offense so will the points for the Sun Devils. Ultimately, the difference maker will be Arizona State's offensive line. They don't have to play perfect; they just have to show little more push than they did against Stanford. I expect that to happen and the Devils should be able to distance themselves as the game wears on.