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October 9, 2008

Game 5: Speak of the Devils

Arizona State comes to the Coliseum on a three-game skid. Facing a USC team that's thumped them in each of the past eight years is unlikely to ease their pain.

The USC Trojans (3-1, 1-1 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 8 by the Associated Press (AP) and No. 9 in the USA Today coaches' poll, continue their 2008 Pac-10 schedule Saturday, October 11, against the Arizona State Sun Devils (2-3, 1-1) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) in the sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a regional ABC television audience. It is the 25th meeting between the Trojans and Sun Devils, with USC holding a 15-9 edge. A season ago, the Trojans put a 44-24 beatdown on the Sun Devils on Thanksgiving night in Tempe, Ariz., notching their eighth consecutive victory over ASU. In the previous meeting at the Coliseum in 2006, USC held off a late Sun Devil rally, 28-21.

A week ago, the Trojans recovered from their upset defeat at Oregon State on Sept. 25 by trouncing the Oregon Ducks, 44-10, at the Coliseum. Junior quarterback Mark Sanchez threw for a career-high 332 yards and three scores as USC used a 24-0 second-quarter run to turn a 10-3 deficit into a 27-10 halftime edge. Meanwhile, the struggling Devils lost their third-consecutive game - a 24-14 decision at California. The Devils trailed 17-0 early, before fighting back to close within 10 points heading into the final quarter. However, ASU could get no closer, and senior quarterback Rudy Carpenter suffered an ankle injury that threatens his availability for this weekend's game.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his eighth season at USC (79-15, 50-10 in the Pac-10) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Arizona State headman Dennis Erickson (160-71-2 in 20 years as a collegiate head coach, 12-6 at ASU) is in his second season in Tempe. Erickson guided the team to a surprising 10-3 finish a year ago and a share of the Pac-10 championship with the Trojans. However, after winning their first two games of 2008, the Sun Devils suffered an embarrassing loss at home to UNLV and were soundly outplayed by then-No. 3 Georgia before last weekend's defeat at Berkeley.

Arizona State Offense
For the third consecutive week, the Trojans will face an offense that operates most often out of a three-receiver, single-back set. However, under offensive coordinator Rich Olson, the Sun Devil offense more closely resembles the Oregon State attack, with Carpenter most often operating from under the center. But, unlike the Beavers who enjoy a balanced attack, ASU uses a throw-first, throw-last scheme (the Devils rank third in the conference in passing yards per game and efficiency) with Carpenter, who has started 36 consecutive games and tossed 73 career TDs, as the clear leader. However, after suffering an ankle injury at Cal that saw him leave the stadium on crutches, his availability for Saturday is clearly in question. If he is unable to play or is reinjured, 6'5" junior Danny Sullivan will get the nod. Erickson says Sullivan is the most studious back-up QB he's ever coached, but studying will only get you so far against the USC defense. The pocket-passing Sullivan has appeared in all five games in 2008, but is just 1-of-8 passing, and does not show the same mobility as Carpenter.

Sullivan will have help from a solid corps of receivers if he does play. Senior Michael Jones and junior Chris McGaha are the leaders of this group, with the 6'4" Jones boasting 26 catches and McGaha 18. From the slot position, sophomore Kerry Taylor and junior Kyle Williams have combined for 28 catches (Taylor 16) and four TDs (two each). This is a versatile group, with speed guys in the slot, a reliable possession receiver in McGaha and a big target in Jones. Senior TE Andrew Pettes has six grabs on the season as the main passing target. The Devils, at times switch to a two-TE set, with juniors Jovon Williams and Stanley Malamala splitting duties in the second spot.

The problem with the Sun Devils' offense is a rushing attack that is averaging just more than 85 yards per game - dead last in the Pac-10. The past two weeks, ASU has rushed for four yards against Georgia and 71 vs. California - at a rate of less than 1.5 yards per carry. That kind of attack will just not get it done against any team, let alone USC. Much more was expected of junior Dmitri Nance and senior Keegan Herring. Nance leads the team with 248 yards at a 3.5 per carry average. Herring averages 3.7 - but only has 96 yards on the season. The bulkier Shaun DeWitty has also seen some time. Some have questioned the Sun Devils' commitment to the rushing attack, but ASU has run the ball on nearly 47 percent of its offensive plays. The Devils have just not been effective.

Part of the blame has to go to the offensive line. Outside of RT Tom Njunge, who replaced four-game starter Adam Tello and was one of four Devils to make their first start for ASU last weekend, the core group has played together all season. Senior Paul Fanaika holds down the right guard spot, while juniors Thomas Altieri at center and Shawn Lauvao at left guard maintain the other mid-line positions. Sophomore left tackle Jon Hargis is expected to be a star by the time it's all said and done, but right now, he's playing like just a guy. Not only has the line failed to open any rushing lanes, but it's also allowed 12 sacks - a better result than a year ago, but still twice as many sacks as the Devil defense has recorded.

Arizona State Defense
The Sun Devil defense is about as expected - a middle of the road team in the Pac-10 that can make a big play or two, but is more passive than the pressure defenses USC has seen the past couple weeks. The Sun Devils don't do anything particularly poorly - but they don't really do anything all that well either. ASU ranks fifth in the conference in pass efficiency and total defense and sixth in rushing and passing yards-per-game defense. They give up nearly 21 points per game. They have just six sacks, four interceptions and no fumble recoveries in five games.

However, it's not as though defensive coordinator Craig Bray doesn't have some talented playmakers. Up front, it all starts with junior defensive end Dexter Davis, a watch-lister for a number of national defensive awards. He has 13 tackles (six for loss) and has notched four of the Devils six total sacks. At the other end, senior Luis Vasquez hasn't been much of a pass rush threat, but he does have 17 stops. In the middle senior David Smith is now joined by true freshman Lawrence Guy (one of 10 true freshmen to play for the Devils in 2008), who played himself into the lineup ahead of sophomore Saia Falahola, who started the first four games. Guy has 22 tackles, good for fifth on the team, including 3.5 for a loss. Outside of Davis and the young Guy, it's been a pretty non-descript group.

Juniors Travis Goethel and Mike Nixon have been team leaders from their linebacker spots. Nixon, who has also started at MLB once, is the entrenched starter now on the weak side, and leads the team with 40 stops. He also had his first career interception last Saturday. Goethel handles the strong side and has 36 tackles. In the middle, a family situation has forced starter Gerald Munns out for the rest of the season. In his place, the serviceable Morris Wooten got his first start of 2008 a week ago. In reserve, Ryan McFoy should see some time on the weakside, while true freshman Shelly Lyons, who has 13 tackles, is likely to play a bit in the middle.

Sophomore cornerback Omar Bolden headlines the Sun Devil secondary. Bolden has developed quickly into a star for ASU, and is tied for third on the team with 23 tackles with senior free safety Troy Nolan. Nolan is another Devil who started the year on a number of defensive award watch lists, after notching six interceptions in 2007. He has one so far in 2008. Freshman Clint Floyd made his first start at strong safety last week, replacing senior Rodney Cox. Expect both to play Saturday. A pair of juniors, Pierre Singfield and Terell Carr split time at the other corner spot.

Arizona State Special Teams
The nation's top placekicker in 2007 (winner of the Lou Groza Award), sophomore Thomas Weber has gotten off to a solid start in 2008. He's hit eight-of-10 FG attempts, with a long of 49 yards, and has helped ASU rank in the top four in conference in kickoff coverage. He also serves as the punter, and is averaging 42.6 yards per boot, ranking third in the conference. Junior receiver Williams is ASU's top kick returner, averaging just less than 24 yards per try, with freshman safety Floyd next up. Williams also handles punt returns, averaging 14 yards.

USC Offensive Gameplan
First of all, credit where credit is due: offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian had a very solid bounce-back game from the Oregon State debacle. The Trojan offense did a wonderful job exploiting match-ups and weaknesses in the Oregon defense. Unlike a week before, the Trojans also seemed to mix the right personnel groups with the right play calls, making execution that much easier for Sanchez & Co. The game called by Sarkisian - and the performance by all of the players - should restore Trojan fans' confidence in the USC attack.

While this reporter would still prefer seeing more of Stafon Johnson carrying the football, it's hard to complain about a 44-point performance. USC's receiver group has really stepped up in 2008, as well. New addition Damian Williams has a lot to do with that, but senior Patrick Turner deserves a special shout-out. After years of inconsistency, Turner has played masterfully during the first four games of 2008, becoming a leader through his solid play. He's caught the ball consistently, run better after the catch more often and maintained his status as a solid downfield blocker.

How will USC attack the Sun Devils? Watch last season's Thanksgiving battle for your answers. Even if Sanchez is unable to go on Saturday (though it says here that he will gut out a solid performance), Mitch Mustain should be capable of handling a game plan similar to what the Trojans did a season ago at ASU. The Sun Devils do not mount much of a pass rush, and both Georgia and UNLV were able to rush the ball effectively. They do not put heat on the quarterback and their linebackers and safeties, while solid tacklers, are not what you'd call great cover guys. The Trojans will come out throwing, utilizing their speed against the Sun Devil linebackers, to clear out the middle of the field. Then, USC should be able to take advantage of ASU's safeties. Don't expect USC to throw at Bolden much, because the other corner is a serious weak spot. After establishing the pass, the Trojans will likely utilize Johnson and C.J. Gable in the rushing attack to try to overpower ASU's front four.

USC Defensive Gameplan
There are more kudos here for last weekend's effort against Oregon. After struggling with tackling, concentration and inspiration in Corvallis, the USC defense thoroughly frustrated the Oregon attack. Brian Cushing, replacing an injured Rey Maualuga in the middle, played extremely well, and Michael Morgan - in his first start at USC - also performed admirably. With Kevin Ellison consistently crowding the line from his safety spot, the Trojans held a Ducks rushing attack that was averaging 308 yards per game to just 60 - quite an effort.

Against the Sun Devils, expect USC to put a lot of pressure on Carpenter or Sullivan. Carpenter is a tough, tough guy, so if there's any way he can play, you can expect him on the field. However, the Trojans pounded him when he was healthy a season ago, and I'd expect him to be a much slower target should he play this weekend. Whoever the QB is for ASU, he will have to find his extensive weapons at receiver quickly, because the Trojan defense is likely to employ a number of exotic pressure packages to confuse and frustrate the Sun Devil offense.

That's the main problem for ASU, though. The Sun Devils favor more of a mid-range passing attack, with five-to-seven-step drops common. With a so-so offensive line and what's been a non-existent running game, the Devils will be hard-pressed to get consistent traction from their aerial attack. USC should be able to bottle up ASU's running backs with its basic 4-3 look. The Sun Devils' only chance to move the ball consistently will be if their offensive line plays better than it has of late - allowing Nance and Herring to keep the USC defense honest and Carpenter or Sullivan time to find receivers.

The Pick
Arizona State was the only Pac-10 team to open its schedule with four home games in 2008. Unfortunately, the Devils suffered a horrific defeat to a poor UNLV team before being outclassed by Georgia. A 2-2 start is not what Erickson or the Sun Devil fan base had in mind - especially considering ASU's first two road games were scheduled for Cal and USC, which have both been houses of horror for the Devils in recent seasons.

At the same time, the Sun Devils do have a very young team in 2008 - only 15 seniors on the roster, while 26 of the 64 players who traveled to Cal last weekend were making their first collegiate road trip. That kind of inexperience tends to hurt a team that still has depth issues left over from the Dirk Koetter Era. Now, with Carpenter questionable to play, ASU could be facing a road game at USC with a first-time starter. It's just not an enviable position for Erickson and his staff.

After the loss to Oregon State, I don't think any fan of USC could possibly take a game for granted. And I sure as heck hope the Trojan team couldn't possibly forget the lesson it learned two weeks ago. I don't think they have. Even if Sanchez can't go, USC has enough weapons on offense to make Saturday a very challenging afternoon for the ASU defense. On the other hand, USC's defense looks to be back on the beam after last week's throttling of Oregon. The Sun Devils, with or without Carpenter, will be hard-pressed to maintain offensive consistency. The Trojans are likely to force a few Sun Devil turnovers as well (ASU is seventh in the Pac-10 in turnover margin, with a -0.8 average). In the end, unless the Trojans have an Oregon State-like breakdown, the Sun Devils are looking at a 2-4 mark heading into their bye week.

USC 38, Arizona State 13

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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