Two Pac-12 South teams that had high hopes entering the season that now are facing different realities will meet on Saturday night when USC matches up with Arizona State in Tempe.
The Trojans (4-4, 3-3 Pac-12) put a stop to their two-game losing streak last week with a 41-34 home victory over winless Arizona. Next up are the Sun Devils (5-3, 3-2), who have lost two in a row to fall behind Utah in the division. At this point, USC is merely playing for bowl eligibility and will need to win two more games (have California, UCLA and BYU left on the schedule) to get there while most of the attention focuses on the ongoing coaching search.
Arizona State only needs one more win to secure a postseason berth, but the program faces plenty of questions and uncertainty related to the current NCAA investigation into potential recruiting violations under head coach Herm Edwards. It's safe to say the off-the-field matters have impacted the on-field product, but the Sun Devils are still very much in the running for a division title so they must keep their focus on doing what it takes to win games.
These two teams have played some entertaining games since Edwards took over in 2018 with USC winning two of the three matchups. Here's what to look for when the Trojans and Sun Devils renew acquaintances on Saturday night.
USC at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Arizona State -9.5
When Arizona State Has the Ball
The Sun Devils haven't quite taken that next step under Edwards, even if player development and overall quality of the product has increased since he replaced Todd Graham in 2018. Quarterback Jayden Daniels was pegged to have a big year entering his third year with the team. It wouldn't be fair to say that he hasn't improved at all, given that his completion rate is hovering around 70 percent (68.5) this season, which is 10 points better than last year. It's the turnovers that have hurt Daniels. After posting an impressive 17:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a freshman in 2019, he had just one pick to five touchdowns in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. But through eight games this season, he only has seven touchdown passes to go with five picks. That has to improve if Arizona State is going to challenge Utah for the top spot in the Pac-12 South.
Daniels is a dynamic runner with 432 yards on 79 carries, so the key for the Sun Devils' offense may be to empower him to take off when he sees an opening. But also drawing up some quick, easy throws to build confidence will be important as well or Arizona State may become too run-oriented, which would make things easier for USC's defense.
There are other ball carriers the Trojans need to be ready to stop, namely Rachaad White and DeaMonte Trayanum. White leads the Sun Devils with 483 rushing yards, and his nine touchdowns are good for fourth in the Pac-12. Trayanum missed several games because of injuries, but he has since returned and is averaging 5.1 yards per carry with four rushing touchdowns.
USC ranks in the middle of the conference against the run at 148.3 rushing yards per game allowed. But the Trojans have surrendered 15 touchdowns on the ground in their eight contests. The key for USC will probably be in how it contains Daniels. If he makes some plays with his arm early that will only put this defense on its heels, and this unit (and the coaching staff) has really yet to show that they're capable of making adjustments. To put it another way: if Daniels flies, USC dies.
When USC Has the Ball
It's both likely and frustrating that the Trojans are going to use both Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart at quarterback similar to how they shared the snaps in last week's win over Arizona. Each had their moments against the Wildcats, but at this point, it's also pretty clear what each signal-caller brings to the table.
Slovis is primarily a passer. He's thrown for 2,022 yards and has 11 touchdowns, but taking care of the football has been a problem this season, as he has thrown seven interceptions. Dart has seen less playing time, but he's also flashed plenty of potential when given the opportunity. He has a 6:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and he also adds another dimension to this offense with his legs. He didn't get to show that against Arizona since the coaching staff was cautious with him after suffering a minor injury the previous game, but don't be surprised if that part of his game returns against Arizona State.
Keaontay Ingram was the start in the win over the Wildcats, as he ran for 204 yards on 27 carries. After a slow start, Ingram has put up 536 yards on the ground in the last four games and has become the main guy in USC's backfield. If Dart is fully healed, using both him and Ingram to run the ball will give the Trojans a look it hasn't had in some time. And the variety may be needed with the Sun Devils ranking fifth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense at 135 yards per game and only 3.7 yards per carry.
When Dart or Slovis decide to throw the ball, that will look different as well, with leading receiver Drake London out for the rest of the season after fracturing his ankle last weekend. London was far and away USC's top target, as he's second in the country in receptions (88), third in yards (1,084), and tied for 14th in touchdown catches (7). Next on the Trojans in these categories is Tahj Washington (32 rec., 396 yds.) and Gary Bryant Jr. (5 TDs). Obviously, they and others will need to step up in London's absence while Arizona State's defensive game plan just got a lot easier by not having to worry about containing London. Even with him, it would have been a challenge for USC with the Sun Devils giving up fewer than 200 passing yards per game and having recorded more interceptions (11) than touchdowns allowed through the air (9).
Nothing about USC inspires confidence. The Trojans are going through a coaching transition with someone who has never held the job, and it showed in last week's one-score victory against a winless Arizona team. Arizona State is a much better team, and even though the Sun Devils are dealing with some issues of their own, they still have plenty to play for. Expect them to come out prepared and ready to play, a task that's made easier on defense with London done for the season. USC is trying to win games with a quarterback rotation that's missing its No. 1 target while Arizona State has a signal-caller who can make things happen with his arm and legs. Seems pretty clear which team has the advantage here.
Prediction: Arizona State 39, USC 26
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— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.