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USC Vs. Arizona State: Then And Now

Some of the key differences in USC football team in the year after one of the worst performance in school history.

Christian Petersen

The USC-Arizona State matchup in 2013 introduced a handful of things that most USC fans could have done without.

It brought one of the worst defensive performances and losses in USC history, the black mark on an otherwise stellar season for defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. It brought the belief that Arizona State was truly Todd Graham’s dream school and not another tour stop.

It introduced the end of an era and a punch line, where coach Lane Kiffin was rumored to have been fired in the LAX parking lot around 3 a.m. after a dreadful performance, the second conference defeat for the Trojans in four total games. Now whenever coaches implode, the ol’ joke of "Just leave them on the runway" has transformed into some variation of "Take him off the bus like Lane!" That’s a cool legacy, right?

But the man in charge is hardly the only quantifiable change in the Southland. The jury’s still rightfully out on Steve Sarkisian, who reached a magnificent milestone -- beating Stanford --during his first month of the season.

Of course, the next week, the team also crapped the bed on the road against Boston College. (I tried to determine whether it was the same team that lost to Colorado State. Sadly, the findings suggested that, yes, it was.)

Thus far, there have been positives (utilizing players, out of necessity or otherwise, as much as possible) and negatives (dubious and sometimes predictable play-calling). But that’s to be expected.

Few are the coaches who kill it immediately, the obvious example being Pete Carroll, he of a 6-6 season his first time at USC, albeit with signs of progress. Conversely, a strong first year could deceive, such as Charlie Weis at Notre Dame and the soon-to-be-unemployed Brady Hoke at Michigan. There are definitely things to like with USC's new head football coach, limiting the Sark snark for now.

But enough of who’s gone -- what’s different about the Trojans that stuck around?

For one, Cody Kessler looks all growns up. The quarterback job was not officially his last year until the third game against Boston College. ASU was his third start after the waffling, and while his passing line looked OK -- except for two interceptions -- USC was outmatched.

No excuses. No, "If this had been different, then the Trojans would have won" -- nada. After Marqise Lee left the game with an injury, tweets like this were all the rage:

After that, Kessler found himself as a quarterback. His arm isn’t Max Wittek strong, but he can push it up field when asked. (His 8.39 yards per attempt this season is respectable.) His play may not be the sexiest, and sometimes his pocket awareness is that of an eager, naive 18-year-old in Ibiza trying "to find him or herself" before going to college, but he has no interceptions on the books in 2014. It helps to be backed by a strong running game, still aware that Buck Allen is by far the best runner on the team.

On the other side of the ball, the defense is still led by child-eater Leonard Williams, wreaking havoc on USC's defensive line and making opposing offensive coordinators weep before tucking themselves into bed after ensuring their nightlight is switched on.

Safety/linebacker/joker Su’a Cravens, a starter for most of last season, jumped up a level. NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah singled out the sophomore as the most impressive player during last week’s win over Oregon State. His range and athleticism induce dropped jaws, and football fans are lucky to watch him rule college ball for another season.

The biggest difference outside of Lane Kiffin is, perhaps, the new defensive coordinator. Clancy Pendergast, who was generally good last season save the ASU matchup, is gone. Justin Wilcox is now in charge. The BC bout was a disaster, but the defense has been rock solid the other three games. The true test will be Saturday. The last three years, this matchup has been a tale of two cities:

The home team has won each meeting by 21 points.

Fortunately, the Sun Devils make their way to Los Angeles in two days. While some changes were completely necessary for USC to improve, the team hopes this is one trend that continues for another season.