(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
It’s hard to ignore the past history between Arizona State and USC. Because of USC’s sudden notoriety of getting rid of coaches after it faces ASU, this matchup has gained unexpected traction as a rivalry over the past few years.
On Saturday, both teams will look to add another chapter to a conflict that also has recently seen a game conclude with a Hail Mary.
There are big implications for the Sun Devils in this game especially, as a win would almost certainly put them in the AP Top 25, somewhere that they have not been since the first week of the 2015 season.
USC on the other hand has had its fair share of struggles of this season, posting just a 1-3 record, although all three losses have been to ranked teams.
With the matchup on paper looking intriguing to say the least, the amount of questions for Saturday night are abundant. Here are five things to look for:
- How will USC quarterback Sam Darnold fare in his first home start?
The Trojans were forced to make a QB change after Max Browne underwhelmed in three starts. Darnold, a redshirt freshman, stepped in nicely and completed 69 percent of his passes for 253 yards against an above average Utah defense.
Now, against an ASU secondary that has played a big part in the defense allowing 34 points per game so far, Darnold will have about as good of an opportunity as he has had all season to thrive. Add in the fact that it is his first start at The Coliseum and the pieces are all in place for him to have a big game.
- Can the Sun Devil defense build off of their second half performance from last week against the run?
A big reason why ASU was able to beat Cal last week was because they essentially eliminated the run game of the Golden Bears, limiting them to only 24 yards in the second half.
Head coach Todd Graham has put the emphasis on finishing tackles, something that has been problematic at times for ASU, for how the run game can be shut down throughout the game against the Trojans.
Graham did call the USC duo of Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II “the best two running backs they will face all season.” If the Sun Devils are able to shut them down, it could be an indication for how the rest of the season will go for the run defense.
- What impact will Kalen Ballage’s injury have on the game, if at all?
A collective gasp was let out by Sun Devil fans when Ballage went down with injury in the first half of last week’s win. Unexpectedly, the running back returned to the game and made a big impact both as a receiver and out of the “Sparky” formation.
Graham says he expects Ballage to play on Saturday, but nothing is known about the extent of it.
Ballage is technically the No. 2 running back on the team despite his early season success, so if he truly receives less playing time because of his injury, Demario Richard will receive a heavier workload while redshirt freshman Nick Ralston may get more looks than he has all season long up to this point.
- Can Kareem Orr shut down JuJu Smith-Schuster?
Many Sun Devil players had strong second halves last Saturday, but perhaps nobody played as exceptionally as Orr, who contained one of the nation’s best receivers, Chad Hansen.
Hansen caught only two passes for six yards in the second half after grabbing eight in the first half. Orr made the necessary adjustments on Hansen, even though some of the damage was already done.
To limit the damage completely, the Pac-12 interceptions leader from a year ago will have to fare even better against Smith-Schuster, who leads USC with 19 receptions this season and was a first team All Pac-12 selection in 2015.
- How will last season’s result play into this game?
Every Sun Devil has, as expected, put last season’s result behind them. Still, it’s hard to ignore the throttling ASU took at the hands of USC last season at Sun Devil Stadium.
The final score was 42-14, but 35-0 at the end of the first half. It was the worst defeat the Sun Devils suffered all season long. No matter what has been said in the week leading up to Saturday’s matchup, exacting revenge has to be among the top priorities for ASU.
A win, no matter how pretty, would put last year’s game out of sight and out of mind.
Final Score Prediction: Arizona State 34, USC 28