It may not have gone as planned, but USC stayed undefeated with a hard-fought road win over Oregon State last weekend and now must avoid a letdown at home this Saturday against an Arizona State team the Trojans should handle with ease.
Between the series history with the Beavers and the amount of attention this game was getting for an entirely different reason, that Oregon State led USC (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) entering the fourth quarter in Reser Stadium this past Saturday night shouldn't have shocked anyone. The score (7-3) probably did, however, considering the over/under for this game was MUCH higher, approaching 70 points for some sportsbooks. The most important thing is that the Trojans came through when it mattered most, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth, the game-winner coming with just 1:13 left after the Beavers had reclaimed the lead. An interception (fourth takeaway of the game) sealed the satisfying 17-14 win. This game was a genuine street fight, and it had to be highly encouraging for the fan base to not only see USC find a way to win this type of contest but to do it on the road against a well-coached team.
Now that Lincoln Riley's team has survived its first true test of the season, Saturday's home game against Arizona State (1-3, 0-1 Pac-12) shouldn't be near as challenging. But that doesn't mean the Trojans can completely overlook the Sun Devils either. It's hard to know how a team with an interim coach will play or what said coach will even get out of his team, but it wouldn't be the first time a poor team destined for a down season managed to upset a ranked team. There's also the matter that these two teams have split their past four meetings (ASU won in Temple last season, 31-16), but those happened with Herm Edwards at the helm, and he's gone.
So after passing the road test, USC gets to face the interim coach test. It's unclear how much can be gleaned by watching Arizona State's recent film, so don't be surprised if Riley digs deep into his bag of tricks and the Trojans try some things on the fly on Saturday. As long as it ends with a (convincing) win, I don't think anyone will mind.
Arizona State at No. 6 USC
When Arizona State Has the Ball
Interim head coach Shaun Aguano isn't expected to get the full-time job, but he can still make history and become the answer to a trivia question — who was the first coach to beat Lincoln Riley when he took over as USC's head coach? Aguano, elevated from running backs coach following Herm Edwards' dismissal on Sept. 18, has only been with the Sun Devils since 2019. He was previously the head coach at Chandler High School, one of the largest high schools in the state, so he's no stranger to being a head coach (and likely has a connection with most of the local players on the roster). However, he doesn't even have coordinator experience at the FBS level, so trying to predict what Aguano is going to do from a game-planning standpoint just might be a fool's errand.
Considering Aguano is probably well aware that he's unlikely to be a serious candidate for the full-time job, he really has nothing to lose and everything to gain from how this team responds to him moving forward. These circumstances sometimes make the most dangerous opponent, and Aguano knows that the pressure is on Lincoln Riley and the Trojans.
Aguano will probably continue to lean on running back Xazavian Valladay. The Wyoming transfer is second in the Pac-12 with 391 rushing yards and is averaging a healthy 6.5 yards per carry. USC's defense has been somewhat susceptible on the ground, giving up 153 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Oregon State last week. Valladay's effectiveness will only help quarterback Emory Jones. The Florida transfer has three touchdown passes with two interceptions through four games as Arizona State has struggled to do much through the air (204.5 ypg, 11th in conference). There's also the matter that the Trojans lead the nation with 11 picks (vs. 2 TD passes allowed), including four of Chance Nolan last week.
When USC Has the Ball
Despite the win, there's no denying that Oregon State's defense frustrated the Trojans' offense all game. Caleb Williams rallied late, throwing what proved to be the game-winning touchdown pass to Jordan Addison, but otherwise, his performance (16-for-36, 180 yds.) had some media members wondering if he was hurt. He'll have a chance to bounce back against an Arizona State defense that gave up 465 total yards in last week's 34-13 home loss to Utah.
Travis Dye carried the offense with 133 rushing yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, but the Beavers made him earn every yard. Austin Jones and Raleek Brown, who combined for 19 yards on eight carries last week, will likely see more carries to spell Dye. And there should be room to run against a Sun Devils defense that's giving up 182.5 rushing yards per game.
While USC certainly wants to show that last Saturday's showing was a blip on the radar, this game also should provide Riley with an opportunity to rest his starters in the second half and give the backups some playing time. The coaching staff will have to weigh the blowout/style points factor against making sure his roster is in the best shape to navigate the heart of the Pac-12 slate. Nobody wants to lose a starter in garbage time.
USC knows it needs to post a convincing win over a team like Arizona State to help the "eye test," especially after escaping on the road against Oregon State. And because of the Sun Devils' current state, this is the type of game that can do more harm than good to the Trojans' national profile.
There's also a bit of synchronicity to this whole situation. Arizona State was the team that beat USC so badly back in 2013 when then-head coach Lane Kiffin was pulled off of the team bus and fired at the airport shortly after arriving back in Los Angeles. Now the Sun Devils face the Trojans a week after their head coach was fired leaving the field immediately after a home loss to a directional Michigan school from the MAC. This shared history should give way to a rout on Saturday.
Prediction: USC 48, Arizona State 15
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— Written by Kane Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.
*Price as of publication.