ASU vs. USC game preview

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Cameron Marshall's 70-yard TD run highlighted ASU's win over USC in 2011 (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) By Norm Hall Cameron Marshall's 70-yard TD run highlighted ASU's win over USC in 2011 (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) By Norm Hall

USC Trojans (3-1, 0-1) at Arizona State (2-1, 0-1)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. PST / 10:30 p.m. EST

Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ

Point Spread: ASU -6

TV/Radio:ESPN2 / 92.3 FM

Weather Forecast: Mid 80s, clear

Series History: USC holds as 19-10 series edge, and has won 12 of the last 13 meetings. The Trojans knocked off ASU last year 38-17. ASU's lone win over the last 13 years was a 43-22 home win in 2011.

Fun Fact of the Week: ASU running back Marion Grice leads the nation in scoring at 16 points-per-game.

ASU on Offense: The Sun Devils have the playmakers to put up points on just about any defense in the nation, but will they get the chance?

The key in this phase will come up front. 

Last week, ASU's offensive line was manhandled by the Stanford defense, unable to open any running lanes or keep quarterback Taylor Kelly away from pressure and the mistakes that it causes. Things will be little easier this week against a USC team ranked No. 4 in the nation in total defense.

The interior offensive line—guards Jamil Douglas and Vi Teofilo, and center Kody Koebensky—will have their hands full up front. Sophomore defensive end Leonard Williams is already an elite player, leading the team with six tackles-for-loss, while fellow end George Uko has four sacks. Both players are strong and very quick, and can wreak havoc in both phases of the game. Outside, linebackers Morgan Breslin (four sacks) and Devon Kennard (three) are excellent and powerful pass rushers, both over 250 pounds.

USC's front seven is also excellent against the run, ranking third in the nation at just 59.3 yards-per-game. ASU's running attack has struggled mightily, averaging just 2.9 yards-per-carry on the year. Marion Grice and D.J. Foster can be lethal to defenses if given even the slightest amount of room, so look for ASU to commit to the run to get Grice and Foster to the second level and keep the offense balanced.

Keeping that front seven off Kelly will be crucial. When given time, he is an excellent quarterback, but as seen against Stanford, when pressured, he makes very bad decisions. Kelly has thrown for over 300 yards in every game this season, and likely will need to do so again to win this game. Kelly has not run much this year, even passing up seemingly attractive lanes on read-option plays, but with USC's rush, he may be on the move more this week. 

If given time, Kelly should be able to make plays downfield. He's quickly developed a great chemistry with wide receiver Jaelen Strong, who is coming off a 12-catch, 168-yard effort against Stanford. Strong's size and speed make him a dangerous target, and while top USC cornerback Josh Shaw will get the assignment, expect extra coverage help. ASU's other wide receivers have been disappointing, plagued by drops, and will need to step up. Tight end Chris Coyle has just six catches on the year, but should find himself some room underneath. After Strong, Kelly looks to Grice and Foster (34 total catches) often, and they figure to each snare several receptions each.

USC has yet to face a truly talented offense—they've battled the 117th, 114th, 73rd, and 30th ranked offenses—but they are still loaded with athletic talent who can attack the line of scrimmage. If the Trojans can win the battle in the trenches, ASU could be in for a long night. Conversely, if the ASU offensive line can hold their ground, the Sun Devil playmakers should be able to put  points on the board frequently thanks to a suspect secondary.

Key Matchups:

  • OTs Tyler Sulka and Evan Finkenberg vs. OLBs Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard: The ASU offensive line is reeling after the last two weeks, and they will get no respite this week. Breslin and Kennard are dynamic pass rusher who already have seven combined sacks on the year.
  • WR Jaelen Strong vs. CB Josh Shaw: Strong has quickly emerged as one of the Pac-12's top receivers, and the Trojan secondary will be hard pressed to stop him. Shaw, a converted safety, has the size to matchup with Strong, but will need some help.
  • OGs Jamil Douglas and Vi Teofilo vs. DE Leonard Williams: Just a sophomore, Williams has quickly emerged as one of the nation's best defensive lineman. He already has a team-high six tackles-for-loss this year, and lines up one both the right and left sides of the line.

ASU on Defense: It's a sign of just how different things are for USC that a team with Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor is a run-first attack. Yet that's the case for the Trojans thus far in 2013.

The change in offense is due to USC's new quarterback Cody Kessler. The redshirt sophomore is still becoming acclimated to the starting job, and has experienced the expected struggles. After two poor showings to begin the year, he had a good game against Boston College, throwing for 237 yards and two touchdowns, but regressed last week against Utah State, only completing 13 of 27 throws. A gunslinger, Kessler can make some plays but is still unpolished, and USC is still a ways away from taking the reigns off of him.

Kessler's growing pains have limited Lee, one of the nation's elite playmakers. Through four games, he has 23 catches for 293 yards and just one touchdowns, and has not been a threat downfield, with the offense settling for shorter, quicker throws to ease the burden on Kessler. However, Lee is a touchdown threat every time he touches the ball, so ASU's secondary, primarily cornerback Osahon Irabor, will need to be on top of their game.

The Sun Devil secondary also can't sleep on Agholor, who despite just eight catches on the year, is an explosive playmaker who is the team's best deep threat. Tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfair have size and talent, and pose matchup challenges in the redzone for talented but smaller ASU safeties Alden Darby, Laiu Moeakiola, and Robert Nelson.

USC will look to gain control of the game on the ground, despite the continued absence of last year's leading rusher Silas Redd due to injury. Lead back Tre Madden, a converted linebacker, has been excellent, gaining 455 yards on the year. The 220-pounder is a battering ram of a runner, and ASU's defense will need to avoid their reliance on arm tackles that hampered them last week. Freshman Justin Davis will also see carries, and is a tough runner in his own right. ASU's been very vulnerable to the run, coming off a 240-yard performance against Stanford, and it won't get easier with defensive tackle Jaxon Hood out with an injury. Defensive end Gannon Conway is sliding inside to team with Mo Latu to fill in for Hood, with Davon Coleman and Marcus Hardison seeing time at end. 

Whether Madden can gain traction and help keep the Trojans in the game will be determined by an underperforming offensive line. USC has been unable to keep defenses out of their own backfield, ranking 96th in tackles-for-loss allowed and 89th in sacks allowed. On the flip side, ASU's defense, which was among the nation's best at attacking offenses last year, has been impotent this year. The Sun Devils rank 92nd in tackles-for-loss and 104th in sacks. With Will Sutton and Carl Bradford seemingly rounding into form, this could be a game in which ASU's defense starts to make plays.

Key Matchups:

  • CB Osahon Irabor vs. WR Marqise Lee: This may be one of the top skill position battles of the year. Lee is one of the most lethal players in the nation, and Irabor is in the midst of a first team All-Pac-12 caliber season.
  • LB Chris Young vs. RB Tre Madden: Madden's emergence has been remarkable, and he is currently the focal point of the USC offense. Young will be key in limiting Madden's production and not allowing any big gains.
  • DT Will Sutton vs USC Interior OL: Facing constant double teams, Sutton has yet to have the impact he did last year, but with USC's struggling offensive line, he could be in a line for a big game.

Special Teams: Over the last two weeks, ASU's special teams have been nothing short of a disaster. The punt team has been the primary culprit, having two kicks blocked along with one botched snap. The three miscues directly resulted in 16 points for the opposition. The team has worked this week to remedy the situation, but the end result is anyone's guess.

The return game has been average at best, with no big returns by either unit, while the kickoff coverage unit allowed a 50-yard return last week to Stanford. Kicker Zane Gonzalez is just 4-of-7 on field goals this year, and the kicking game remains a major question mark.

USC lets Marqise Lee handle both return jobs, and while he's yet to strike big this year, he's a danger on every touch. Trojan kicker Andre Heidari has struggled this year, with misses from 32, 43, and 47 yards. Punter Kris Albarado has been active, and is averaging 40.3 yards-per-kick and dropping 12 of his 23 boots inside the 20.

ASU's To Do List:

  • Stop USC's run game
  • Avoid special teams miscues
  • Limit Marqise Lee's damage
  • Protect Kelly

What It All Means: This game has the all the makings of a defensive battle. Two front sevens that love to attack facing two offensive lines that are reeling heading into the weekend. This game could feature hard fought yard, key turnovers, and both teams held under 20.

The big advantage here is that ASU's offense has a big edge over USC's, despite the presence of all-world talent in Lee. Taylor Kelly is a much different, and better, quarterback at home, and should have a big day.

When these two teams get together, anything can happen, and a scoring spree could very well break out between these relatively evenly matched teams.

Prediction: ASU wins 38-31