(Photo: Shayne Dwyer)
The last two weeks couldn’t have been much worse for Arizona State. After barely escaping Wisconsin, with some help along the way, the Sun Devils were taken out back to the wood shed and beaten to a pulp by Stanford before the Cardinal backed off and let the Sun Devils think they had a chance. We learned quickly that it was Stanford allowing ASU back in the game and not the other way around. As a result, the Sun Devils face a must-win home game against USC tonight.
Injuries to the defensive line won’t help matters against the Trojans. Sophomore nose tackle Jaxon Hood won’t play by all indications, leaving the Sun Devils very thin at that position. In truth, they don’t have a backup for Hood. Instead, senior defensive end Gannon Conway slides inside, where he is extremely undersized, and Davon Coleman and transfer Marcus Hardison will play end. Head coach Todd Graham also announced that both Junior Onyeali and backup Devil linebacker (essentially a standup defensive end) Chans Cox are out for the season.
Due to these injuries and the nature of the Pac-12 schedule, mixed with how good UCLA has looked so far, the Sun Devils need a win tonight and frankly, it needs to be a dominant one against a USC team that has struggled so far.
Arizona State wins if: The Sun Devils can move the football. USC has a stout defense, with an electric front-seven led by defensive end Leonard Williams and pass rushers Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin. Behind them is an athletic, opportunistic secondary. Dion Bailey is the leader at safety, but true freshman Su’a Cravens might be the most talented player on the Trojans defense, and he’s proved already he isn’t afraid to lay the lumber on opposing receivers. The Sun Devils can’t have dropped passes and missed blocking assignments in this one. Those moments kill momentum and Taylor Kelly is a rhythm passer. If receivers make the simple catches, Kelly and the 8th-ranked passing offense in the country should carry the Sun Devils to a win.
The Sun Devils are in trouble if: They still can’t run the football. ASU has to find a way to run the ball effectively, something they’ve somehow failed to do in any game this season. If they can’t run with some semblance of success, the Trojans will be able to pin their ears back and attack Kelly, and the secondary will be able to take some chances. USC’s defense has looked great so far, but let’s be honest here; the Trojans schedule so far wouldn’t intimidate a good WAC team, let alone an upper echelon Pac-12 team. I suspect we see some of the flaws in the Trojans defense that others haven’t been able to expose, namely in the running game. The Trojans are small up front for a 3-4 defense, so the Sun Devils should be able to win at the point of attack in the rushing game. If USC wins that battle, and Marion Grice is once again shut down, this will be a long game for the Sun Devils.
Arizona State loses if: They still haven’t figured out how to take care of the football. Two weeks in a row, Taylor Kelly has thrown a dumb interception. Two weeks in a row, the punt unit has give up points without even kicking the ball. Two weeks in a row, receivers have dropped wide-open, on-the-mark passes. The Sun Devils also have to get to USC quarterback Cody Kessler. I’m not really worried about the Arizona State defense in this one, because USC has looked bad in the passing game against porous defenses, so a good defense should have a big game. But the 1985 Chicago Bears defense wouldn’t have been good if the opposing offense started near midfield or better half of the time.
Prediction: Arizona State wins, 34-20. No critical errors, it’s a term Graham says over-and-over. It’s time for the Sun Devils to practice what they preach, and I think everyone knows this is a pivotal game for the remainder of the season. Notre Dame doesn’t matter, USC does. The Sun Devils can’t start 0-2 in conference. The season effectively ends if they do. I expect a breakout game from the defense, with Will Sutton and Carl Bradford forcing havoc and the D forcing two or three turnovers, and I think Kelly and the offense get back to last year’s winning formula: running the ball coupled with misdirection passes.
You can reach Jason Galvin on Twitter @Jason_Galvin or by email email@example.com