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USC vs. Arizona State Game Preview

USC just got walloped by an Oregon team that was anemic in the first quarter. So following with the ‘so what, now what?’ mantra that Clay Helton established, what happens next?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 28 USC at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

USC did not have a good Saturday against Oregon. The Trojans, who technically had an extra day to prepare because of a Friday night game the week before, got blown out in front of Trojan parents and many recruits who visited the Coliseum. The loss means that USC no longer controls its own destiny in the Pac-12. Even if USC wins out, USC needs Utah to drop one against a conference opponent to win the Pac-12 championship. If USC loses another conference game, its Pac-12 title hopes are essentially nonexistent.

So with nothing but pride and bowl eligibility to play for, what should fans expect in the Trojans’ visit to Tempe Arizona?

Well USC still needs to prove that their road woes are no more. Yes, the Trojans beat Colorado two weeks ago. But that was a close game against the worst team in the Pac-12, a Colorado team that got shellacked by UCLA in a blowout last week.

Their opponent will be the 5-3 Arizona State Sun Devils. Lead by coach Herm Edwards, the Arizona State program was seen to be reaching for name recognition with little substance. But Herm Edwards, like Jon Gruden on the professional level, has proven that he can hang in the college ranks. Edwards named freshman Jayden Daniels starter at the quarterback position and never looked back. The Sun Devils started the season on a 5-1 tear that saw them ranked as high as 17 on the AP Poll. But after losses to Utah and UCLA, Arizona State was given respite in the form of a bye week. With two weeks to prepare for USC to come into town, Herm Edwards and co will try to figure out what worked, what didn’t, and what went wrong in the Sun Devil’s past two games.

What has been working has been the Arizona State backfield; the Sun Devils have Jayden Daniels and Eno Benjamin at the positions that touch the ball most often. And the old football idiom goes: get the ball to your best playmakers. Well, when your playmakers are your quarterback and runningback, as is the case for Arizona State, that’s an easy task. Jayden Daniels has done everything you could expect from a true freshman. In two of Arizona State’s losses, Daniels has thrown for 267 and 345 yards, as well as three touchdowns and two touchdowns. When the Sun Devils lose, they lose in spite of Daniels’ play, and not because of it. Daniels’ one stinker came against Utah, but that’s looking more and more forgivable as Utah is looking like a top 10 team and a top 10 defense. In literally every other game, Daniels has either put up big numbers or lead the Sun Devils to victory.

And the Trojans will face this Sun Devils offense that likes to spread the ball around quickly, forcing the defense to play cleanly and make tackles. Notably, this is not the Trojans’ strength. Yes, Palaie Gaoteote will likely be back at near full strength. And yes, the Trojans will have the services of Isaiah Pola-Mao for the whole game. But the Trojan defense will struggle to contain Daniels’ ability to spread the ball around Benjamin’s rushing ability. One hope the Trojans have is that their young corners play aggressive press coverage against Arizona State’s offense, which prefers to throw short. If USC’s young talented corners can anticipate throws and get pass break-ups, USC may be able to prevent Arizona State from putting up big points.

On the other side of the ball, USC’s offense has just not seemed to get anything together. With depth at the runningback position decimated with injury, the Trojans have been forced to air it out. Last week, Kedon Slovis broke the Trojan record for passes attempted in a game. Forcing throws may seem positive at first given the Trojans talent at the receiver position. But that also increases the likelihood of turnovers. Slovis is usually good with ball security with a clean pocket, but when he feels pressure, his throws can be rushed or misplaced. And when Slovis tries avoid the pass-rush and put the weight of the team on his shoulders, he tends to fumble. This play is appropriate down 30, but not up 3:

But ultimately defenses are the ones who force turnovers. And this Sun Devil defense turns the ball over. The Sun Devils have only intercepted three balls, but recovered an incredible 11 fumbles through the season. They are currently +7 in turnover margin, a number that seems primed to go up if the Trojans continue struggling to take care of the ball.

So a USC team with almost nothing to play for will stumble into Tempe to face an offense that targets the Trojan defense’s largest weakness. And the Sun Devil defense has made a living capitalizing on the turnovers that USC seems to give away a couple of times a game. The Trojans may have more raw talent, but Clay Helton has proved in two years without Sam Darnold that talent alone cannot propel a program to victory.