"This game is about getting our first win in conference play against a really quality opponent," USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian stressed that Arizona State was a quality opponent, regardless of how things had played out early. On their end, the Trojans will be coming off a loss, the Sun Devils are always ready for this game, it’s a night contest, and the Trojans will need to be laser focused. There is no time to mourn following the loss to Stanford because the Sun Devils will be ready to play.
"Well, they played two triple-option teams the last two week in Cal Poly and New Mexico, so they saw a lot of run game. Like anything early in the year, some of those stats that everybody has [on them] are a little skewed. The reality of it is that Coach [Todd] Graham is a heck of a defensive coach." Sarkisian said.
With Washington, Notre Dame, and Utah on the horizon, a simple loss to Stanford could turn into a nightmare of a season really quickly if the Trojans lose focus because of one game. Now it’s up to Steve Sarkisian to do something he has not done since becoming a head coach - beat Arizona State.
USC at Arizona State
Kickoff: 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. USC's Ability To Protect Kessler
After an awful showing in Week 1 against Arkansas State where the Trojans allowed five sacks, the offensive line has rebounded nicely to only allow one in the past two weeks. That will be put to the test this week.
"They’re very aggressive,” Sarkisian said. “We’re gonna see probably every blitz known to mankind here Saturday night and we’re going to have to be really, really tight up front with our protections. We have to do a really good job communicating in the run game, picking up all the pressures, stunts, and blitzes because they’re going to be coming. That’s their M.O., that’s what they do.”
Offensive line coach Bob Connelly will need to have this young group ready for a Sun Devil defense that was able to get to Kessler three times last year. The offensive line will need to be able to create holes or the Trojan running game will not be able to keep Sparky’s defense honest. Arizona State are at their best when they can create havoc up front and enforce their physical brand of football on their opponents. If the Trojan offensive line can provide quarterback Cody Kessler with ample time to distribute the football, unlike previous seasons, the Sun Devils do not have the talent across the board to match USC.
If the Trojans cannot get out of their own, however, Arizona State won’t need what what don’t have.
Related: Pac-12 Week 4 Predictions
2. Avoiding Costly Self-Inflicted Mistakes
Countless times this week, Steve Sarkisian mentioned USC’s self-inflicted mistakes against Stanford. While the offensive line was responsible for their share against the Cardinal and will need to stop negating Trojan big plays with dumb mental mistakes, the entire team needs to address this issue when playing the Sun Devils.
For whatever reason, USC can’t get out of their own way when they play Arizona State. The Trojans committed nine penalties against the Sun Devils last year. So far this year, USC are No. 75 in the nation in penalty yards. The difference between the Trojans and the last-ranked Indiana Hoosiers? 24 yards of penalties and five fewer flags.
3. Pressuring Arizona State QB Mike Bercovici Into Mistakes
Speaking of mistakes, the Trojans haven’t forced nearly enough of them so far in 2015.
Last year, backup quarterback Mike Bercovici was able to go out and pick apart the Trojan secondary. At the end of the evening, Bercovici had thrown for 510 yards, five touchdowns, and only one interception. Most teams aren’t going to win a game giving up those kind up numbers, USC somehow found themselves in a position to win it prior to Bercovici’s final touchdown pass, a 46-yard Hail Mary to Jaelen Strong as time expired.
Steve Sarkisian repeatedly stressed turnovers this week, often times adding that the Trojan defense is at its best when they create turnovers and limit red zone opportunities.
“It’s been a little frustrating that we haven’t gotten the turnovers,” Sarkisian said. “Part of that is because we had such a good training camp of getting our hands on balls, tipped balls, overthrows, forced fumbles, and we came out the first game like gangbusters, creating four of them right off the bat. Now we have gone eight straight quarters without creating a turnover and so there is some level of frustration there because I know we can do it. I’ve seen us do it and for us to become the team that we want to become, creating turnovers has to be a piece of that puzzle. So, we’re emphasizing it and it’s going to be a really big factor. The really good teams create turnovers and take care of the ball, we’ve just gotta try to get back to that and do it with confidence.”
Arizona State seem to save their finest moments for the Trojans and this is a game both coaches know they need to win if they’re going to have any chance of reaching the College Football Playoff. Over the last five years, the Sun Devils have averaged 38.6 points per game against USC. That is their highest average against any opponent that they have played during the same window. The point: Arizona State is prepared for USC.
Ultimately, Sarkisian’s record against the Sun Devils (0-4) and Todd Graham’s record against USC (2-1) are too much to safely bet against. USC could very well win this game going away, but recent history has been kind to the Sun Devils and they’ll be sure to make a mental note of the fact that securing wins over the next two weeks would give the Arizona State a near insurmountable lead in the Pac-12 South as they travel to UCLA next Saturday.
If they can’t do it now, they may never clear that hurdle.
Prediction: Arizona State 39, USC 37
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for Reign Of Troy, USC’s FanSided affiliate. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.