Bowl eligibility and staying alive in the Pac-12 South race are on the line in Tempe
Saturday's game between the USC Trojans and Arizona State Sun Devils is basically an elimination game in the Pac-12 South. The team that loses will have a near-zero chance of winning the division. For USC, a loss would seemingly expedite the firing of head coach Clay Helton, although new athletic director Mike Bohn's arrival on Thursday could change that timing.
The Trojans (5-4, 4-2 Pac-12) enter Saturday coming off an absolute beatdown at the hands of the Oregon Ducks. The Trojans surrendered eight touchdowns to the Ducks after scoring the game’s first 10 points. At one point, Oregon scored five touchdowns in a row before USC found the end zone again. It’s safe to say that the wheels have completely fallen off the Helton tenure. In fact, it’s hard to see any scenario in which Helton is still the head coach at USC next season.
What that means for USC heading into Saturday is anyone’s guess. The Trojans have the ability to win out with a weak remaining schedule. It’s also possible to see them losing two of their three remaining games. Arizona State got the better of USC last year, so it’s not hard to picture the Trojans struggling again with turnovers and penalties. If that happens, Herm Edwards will have his team prepared to capitalize on every mistake the Trojans make.
For Arizona State, 2019 hasn’t quite gone to plan either. With losses to Colorado and UCLA, the Sun Devils (5-3, 2-3) are a longshot to win the Pac-12 South. If they lose to USC, their fate will be all but sealed, which puts extra pressure on Sun Devils freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels. Daniels has shown that he’s going to be a commodity for the Sun Devils going forward. If he is able to have a big day, the Sun Devils have a serious shot at beating USC.
While Arizona State relies on Daniels, they must be careful not to put too much on his plate. He’s still young and growing. Brandon Aiyuk is another name to watch for the Sun Devils. The team's leading receiver in five of their eight games, he leads the nation in yards after contact. Running back Eno Benjamin, who is third in the conference with seven rushing touchdowns, can also help shoulder much of the load.
USC at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Arizona State -1.5
When USC Has the Ball
The Trojans are well equipped on offense, but they are tattered and battered to the extreme. Injuries to the Trojans at just about every position have left them rather thin at a crucial point in the season. The best option for the Trojans at running back is freshman Kenan Christon, who is tremendously exciting and quick. But as talented as he is, he’s still young, and USC has to be careful with how often they use him.
The Trojans need quarterback Kedon Slovis, an Arizona native, to have a big game. Slovis has been something of a revelation for the Trojans. With JT Daniels going down with a season-ending knee injury, Slovis has stepped in and thrived in his absence. There are some folks who believe that USC has found their next quarterback and that Daniels will end up as a back-up or potentially even a transfer. If Slovis can keep the turnovers to a minimum — he's made some costly errors protecting the ball — he has an embarrassment of riches to throw the ball to on offense. Even without Bru McCoy, the Trojan receivers are thriving in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid scheme, led by Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns, and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
When Arizona State Has the Ball
The Sun Devils have a solid situation on offense. With stud running back Eno Benjamin having a solid season, the emergence of Brandon Aiyuk and Jayden Daniels has given ASU a solid trio of playmakers. If the Sun Devils are able to get things going on offense, they have the ability to take advantage of USC’s No. 71-ranked scoring defense. The Trojans are also ranked No. 94 in total defense, so this is a unit that will bend and break while only ranking 96th nationally with 10 turnovers forced.
Mobile quarterbacks have been an issue for USC, and Daniels is the second-leading rusher on the Sun Devils. If the Sun Devils can get help on offense from wide receivers Frank Darby and Kyle Williams, it will allow the Sun Devils to spread a very thin USC secondary to its breaking point. But the Sun Devils must live by an aggressive philosophy and attack, attack, attack.
USC has lost the plot. Between the rumors going around about the pursuit of Urban Meyer and/or James Franklin to the drawn-out hiring process of new athletic director Mike Bohn, this team knows that change is coming, and it’s awfully hard to motivate a team that knows its coach is going to be gone by season's end, if not sooner. Arizona State if firmly entrenched in the philosophy of Herm Edwards, and they’re finding great success living that game plan.
The Trojans have all the pieces to dominate their division and compete for a conference championship every single year. But the turnovers, self-inflicted wounds, and penalties all prevent USC from being able to turn their operation into the Death Star it’s meant to be. Only nine FBS teams have coughed up more penalty yards than USC this season, and it’s awfully hard to win games when you’re giving up 70.1 yards per game. Count on USC helping Arizona State beat them; they have tremendous amounts of experience in this department.
Prediction: Arizona State 34, USC 24
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.