It’s becoming harder and harder to buy into the idea of Clay Helton as a long-term solution to USC’s coaching woes. As each week passes, USC looks more and more out of sorts and disheveled. By contrast, Arizona State is a well-oiled machine sitting at a perfect 4-0 on the season. While USC will be their “toughest test” of the season so far, it’s by no means an easy path to victory.
When the game kicks off on Saturday, USC’s opponents will be a combined 12-1 on the season and making matters worse, Todd Graham has won three of four Pac-12 road openers. Per the media guide, “excluding FCS NAU, the Sun Devils are currently first nationally in averaging 30.7 points per second half against FBS opposition and first in the country with 21.7 points per fourth quarter against FBS teams.” For a USC offense that can't seem to find its rhythm moving forward, that could end up being a game-changing type of stat.
For USC, this tale has to be getting old for all involved. It’s the same thing every year. The new-hire coach wins the press conference, there’s a celebration of a tremendous recruiting class in February, the quarterbacks look as sharp as can be, and then the season starts and the coaching decisions are mystifying, the play from top recruits bewilders, and the mistakes turn into important loss after important loss, then the coach is fired, and we do this all over again.
To say that USC must win this game is an understatement. Should they lose this game, I don’t see much of a chance for USC to go bowling. They will be 1-4 on the season with games against Oregon, Washington, Notre Dame, and UCLA still left to play. Those teams alone could add up to eight losses on the season and there’s almost always one or two interesting games that play out
Arizona State at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: USC -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Sam Darnold’s Growth
The Max Browne experiment failed and it’s hard not to see him transferring at the end of the season. At this point, he is a graduate and would be a great grab for any team looking for a QB with his skills. Unfortunately for Browne, the era of the non-mobile quarterback has all but come and gone. But if Darnold wants to keep Browne on the bench and solidify his position as USC’s guy moving forward into the future, he’s going to need to leave it on the field every week.
Like nearly every quarterback before him, Darnold found JuJu Smith-Schuster to be his comfort blanket. Smith-Schuster caught passes last week for just under 100 yards. Darnold will need to be careful not to be over reliant on JuJu like Cody Kessler was during his time at USC. Kessler’s inability to spread the field made it slightly easier for defenses to plan against him. As long as Darnold avoids that trap and uses the weapons USC has at its disposal, his natural talent should be enough for him to secure the job.
2. Try to Avoid a Shootout
To put it rather bluntly, USC doesn’t have enough of their identity figured out to win a shootout with Arizona State. The Sun Devils have hung 50 or more 16 times since Graham’s arrival back in 2012. Under the new offensive leadership of coordinator Chip Lindsey, ASU is averaging 47.34 points per game, and already have 16 rushing touchdowns this year when they had all of 19 last season.
The Sun Devils also strike fast, meaning the USC defense won’t have much time to rest if the Trojan offense can’t sustain drives. Of ASU’s 32 scoring drives in 2016, 21 came in under three minutes (65.6 percent.) The Sun Devils have forced 21 three-and-outs this season on 60 defensive drives (35.0 percent), and average of 5.25 three-and-outs per game, which ranks 14th nationally this season. This is a team that can play both sides of the ball. USC will need to be prepared or their defense could be too exhausted to help the offense out any further.
3. Stop Arizona State in the Red Zone
The Sun Devils have now scored in 18-of-18 trips to the red zone in 2016 and have scored a touchdown on 14 of those trips (77.8). That was an area ASU struggled in last year, only finding the end zone on 51.5 percent of its red zone trips. If ASU remains perfect in the red zone during the USC game, they’re likely to come away with victory. This series is close -- remember, the series is only 32 games deep and USC’s record is 20-12, but the Sun Devils have won three of the last five games coinciding with Graham’s arrival.
This game will come down to the little things; red zone appearances and special teams. Only three of Zane Gonzalez’s kickoffs have been returned. In total, 30 of his 37 kicks have been for touchbacks (81.1 percent.) Small margins, special teams victories and turnovers will be the story of this game. Right now, USC is struggling in every one of those categories.
There is nothing that inspires about this USC team. It’s the same old and the onus is on the Trojans to get people to buy into them. Thus far, they’ve not accomplished this feat. It’s hard to know what Athletic Director Lynn Swann is thinking, but there are a couple of certainties in this situation. The first certainty is that Swann did not hire or issue a contract to Clay Helton. The term “his guy” may yet still apply. The second certainty is that, should Helton keep losing, USC may be out of the relevant bowl picture before they know it. Dollars make sense.
The Trojans need this victory. They want this victory. They’ll have the home crowd behind them, but it’s likely to dissipate after a couple of uninspired drives lead to Arizona State quick strikes. The key to beating this USC team has always been to do so on the mental side of things. If the Sun Devils can beat the Trojans mentally like the year they did with the famous Vontaze Burfict picture, they can and should come away with this win.
Arizona State is going up, USC is going down. The logical conclusion here is to follow the trends.
Prediction: Arizona State 39, USC 26
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California.