As the calendar gets ready to turn to November, USC is facing a stretch of games, starting with Saturday's matchup at home against Arizona State, that could very well not only decide the outcome of its season, but the future of the coaching staff as well.
First up are the Sun Devils, coached by "The Herminator" himself, Herm Edwards. Arizona State enters this game with a 3-4 record (1-3 in the Pac-12) that could very easily be 5-2 or 4-3. The Sun Devils have yet to lose a game by more than a touchdown, and one of their wins came earlier this season at home against then-No. 13 Michigan State.
The Trojans are 4-3 overall and currently tied with Utah for first in the Pac-12 South at 3-2. This season has been a struggle for head coach Clayton and the Men of Troy, especially when it comes to discipline, turnovers and consistency on offense. JT Daniels, the much ballyhooed freshman quarterback, is in the concussion protocol while his backup, Matt Fink, is out for the rest of the season with broken ribs. That may leave third-stringer Jack Sears leading an offense that ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in both yards and points per game.
Of course, this does bring to mind the last couple of times USC had to start a backup due to an injury. Aaron Corp, Mark Sanchez and Max Wittek’s adventures loom large, but more on that a little later. The Trojans have the pieces to make noise on offense, including wide receivers Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Velus Jones and Tyler Vaughns as well as running backs Stephen Carr and Aca’Cedric Ware. The problem has been putting it all together, which is why offensive coordinator Tee Martin is under a lot of scrutiny right now.
USC is a good team when it wants to be a good team. Arizona State is a team learning under a head coach who also is learning himself. The Sun Devils have been the more disciplined team thus far, so the Trojans will have to limit their mistakes if they hope to hold serve at home.
Arizona State at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who will start under center for USC?
USC suffered two big losses in last week’s game. The Trojans lost the game (41-28 at Utah) but more importantly, they also lost starting quarterback JT Daniels to a concussion. Backup Matt Fink replaced Daniels and was able to finish the game, but he broke several ribs and is out for the rest of the season. Daniels is going through concussion protocol so there's a chance he may be cleared to play, but USC is already moving forward and preparing third-stringer Jack Sears to start.
Arizona State is entirely aware of this and the Sun Devils figure to have an advantage, especially if Sears isn't up to the task. Those familiar with USC's history can recall fairly easily recent instances where a backup QB was called into duty and things went south. There was the loss Mark Sanchez endured to Oregon when John David Booty went down with a broken finger.
There’s the Notre Dame game with Max Wittek, after Matt Barkley went down with an injury. Aaron Corp’s game against Washington is another time that the Trojans lost to lesser competition with an incapable backup. Basically, the Trojans aren’t exactly bulletproof because their backups were also highly touted. Herm Edwards wouldn’t be the first to procure a win over a favored USC team starting a backup QB.
2. Can the Trojans quit shooting themselves in the foot with penalties?
Where to even begin with USC’s penalties? The Trojans are near the bottom of the entire FBS when it comes to penalties per game (8.7, tied for 123rd), total penalty yards (569, 118th), and penalty yards per game (81.3, 123rd). This is as undisciplined a team as you will find in college football. It’s unreal how many drives are neutered because USC picks up a personal foul or a holding penalty that squanders a potential scoring opportunity. This type of football is not sustainable if a team wants to win close games or just plain wants to win.
3. What has Arizona State learned up to this point?
Herm Edwards is a perfect fit for college football. He has a way to reach kids and teach kids. This Sun Devils team is already doing better than people expected, and they’re not that much of an underdog against USC. The fact that Vegas has Sparky within seven points on the initial spread says a lot about what they think of both teams to this point. Speaking of seven points, Arizona State hasn’t lost a game by more than seven points all year. This is a very capable football team and Edwards knows how to keep it close, giving his team a chance to win. The question is has Arizona State learned enough from those close losses to turn them into wins over the final stretch of this season?
This is one of those games where either team could win and it wouldn’t be a shock to the system. For USC, the big question is under center. Jack Sears is the unknown, but it's very likely he will get the call even if JT Daniels is cleared. Another question is can the Trojans maintain discipline over four quarters?
The home team is usually spotted three points, so USC is really only about a 3.5-point favorite here, not a lot of room for error when your team commits a lot of errors as it is. One or two turnovers could be the difference in the game so whoever is at quarterback must make protecting the football a priority whether it's in the pocket or in the throws they try to make.
In the end, talent should win out. Expect Arizona State to keep the game close. The Sun Devils are a good team and well coached. USC is a good team whose coaches seem to be struggling. Whether it’s getting going offensively, a relatively poor rushing attack, or their discipline problems, these Trojans finds ways to keep their opponents in the game. They’re also known for blowing large leads. USC had 17-point leads over Utah and Texas, but both teams came back to blow the Trojans out. That falls on coaching as much as execution. USC should win but don't be surprised if Arizona State finds a way to pull off another Jael Mary and end up upsetting the Trojans in their own house.
Prediction: USC 30, Arizona State 27
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.