It's only Week 5 of the 2013 college football season, but the late-night matchup between USC-Arizona State could be a crucial game for both teams. The Trojans and Sun Devils expected to compete for the Pac-12 South title, are looking to notch their first conference win this season. USC was embarrassed at home by the Washington State a few weeks ago, while ASU is stinging after a 42-28 throttling at the hands of Stanford.
USC leads the series all-time 18-10, riding an 11-game win streak that stretched from Paul Hackett's final season at USC in 2000 to 2011. However, of those 10 Arizona State wins in the series, six of them have come in Tempe. USC coach Lane Kiffin has a career 2-1 record against the Sun Devils, with both wins coming at home, and the 2010 victory coming by just one point.
Last year, USC defeated ASU 38-17 in a sloppy affair that saw nine total turnovers. From that game, the Sun Devils return six offensive starters, including quarterback Taylor Kelly, and eight defensive starters, namely All-America defensive tackle Will Sutton. Things should be electric in Tempe as 1980's rock band Journey will be performing the Star-Spangled Banner.
3 Things to Watch
Taylor Kelly was a nice surprise for the Sun Devils in 2012. Slotted as the third-string quarterback during spring ball, Kelly won the starting job by opening day. He exceeded expectations as a sophomore by throwing for 3,039 yards, 29 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. Unfortunately, three of those interceptions came in the loss to USC. So far this year, Kelly has picked up where he left off, throwing for 1,019 yards, eight touchdowns and just three interceptions. The last two games, against Wisconsin and Arizona State, Kelly has attempted a combined 106 passes and thrown for over 350 yards in each game. Kelly is behind only Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley as the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12. While the Sun Devils have a clear starting quarterback, things are much foggier in Los Angeles. After going back-and-forth on his starting quarterback, Kiffin eventually landed on Cody Kessler. Kessler hasn't been very impressive thus far, as the USC offense often looks stagnant. Kessler completed just 48 percent of his passes against Utah State, averaging just six yards a completion. Kessler needs to be much better against a Sun Devils defense that boasts a couple NFL prospects. To emerge victorious, Kelly needs to avoid the big mistake against a tough USC defense, while Kessler needs to start making big plays in a tough road atmosphere.
The Trojans are 3-1 while ranking 98th in the country in scoring and 108th in passing offense. How is this possible? It's because of the defensive clinic that USC has showcased for the first three weeks. New coordinator Clancy Pendergast has done a terrific job molding this unit to fit his 5-2 scheme, which takes full advantage of the Trojans deep and talented defensive line. USC is ranked 11th in the nation in points allowed, giving up an average of just 11 points per contest. The Trojans are third in the country in rush defense as opponents average around 59 rushing yards per game. The USC pass defense has been just as strong, forcing six interceptions, while giving up no more than 215 passing yards in a single contest.
Arizona State rushing defense
Lane Kiffin doesn't have faith in his passing game; therefore, he will try to keep the ball on the ground this week. The Sun Devils have not been stellar against the run this year, yielding 210 rushing yards to Wisconsin and 240 to Stanford. Opponents have keyed on ASU's weak rushing defense as they have passed 68 times this year, compared to 87 rushing attempts. The Sun Devils definitely have the talent to turn things around, but 2012 consensus All-American Will Sutton, who had 13 sacks a season ago, has been relatively quiet on the stat sheet so far. The reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year has just nine tackles in 2013. ASU will look to junior linebacker Carl Bradford to pick up the slack. If these leaders don't step up for the Sun Devils, the Trojans could find themselves nearing the 225 rushing yards they put up against Arizona State a season ago.
Key Player: Tre Madden, RB, USC
The sky appeared to be falling when it was announced Silas Redd would miss the season opener due to a knee injury. However, he's yet to play a snap this season and the Trojans rushing attack hasn't missed a beat. Tre Madden has filled in quite admirably for a back that scored 10 touchdowns a season ago. Madden has gone for over 100 yards in each of the first three games to open the season. The last USC tailback to do that was Marcus Allen in his 1981 Heisman-winning season. Kiffin will go to Madden early and often on Saturday as he tries to take the pressure off of quarterback Cody Kessler.
The game features a dynamic Arizona State offense versus a stingy USC defense. Both should perform well, but what I expect to decide the game is whether USC can run the football effectively and whether the Sun Devils can stop them. If USC is able to take the air out of the ball and dictate the pace, they are at a huge advantage. If Arizona State can close down the rushing lanes and force Kessler to beat them with his arm, then I believe the fans in Tempe will be going home happy. If this game stays under 21 points then I'd take USC, but anything over than and I don't think the Trojans offense can match it. I think this is the game USC's defense gets exposed a bit, as Taylor Kelly is the best quarterback the Trojans have seen all year. Don't underestimate Kelly's scrambling ability as the junior rushed for 516 yards last year. Keep an eye on how Kessler (bruised hand) and Marqise Lee (ankle) handle their respective injuries in this potentially season-defining game for the Pac-12 North.
Prediction: Arizona State 27, USC 16