The next two games are gigantic for USC, and it all starts with this one against Arizona State.
A loss in one of these games likely means the Holiday Bowl, if not worse. This is the only opportunity that the Trojans are going to get to beat a ranked team. UCLA will not be ranked even if they beat Oregon. So all arguments for BCS consideration will have to start with a win over the No. 6 Sun Devils. How did the Sun Devils get to 9-1? Was it just their schedule? It hasn't hurt, but the Devils have played solid football. Here's a look at them.
Arizona State Offense vs. USC Defense
The best word to describe ASU's offense: basic. The word "simplified" was thrown around a lot in fall camp in Tempe, and they ain't lyin'. This has been a big reason for the improvement of QB Rudy Carpenter. Last season, Carpenter completed only 55% of his passes and threw 14 INTs. This season, he's up to 63% and down to eight, and only Alex Brink and Willie Tuitama have thrown more, and they are in pass first offenses.
The Sun Devils are pretty balanced, but they run the ball slightly more than they pass it. The running scheme is very simple. It's all straight ahead zone blocking, and they pull the guards only a limited amount of times because they are not quick enough on the OL to do it much. They lost Ryan Torain midway through the season, but Keegan Herring has picked up the slack admirably, rushing for almost six yards per carry. He is a big play threat, as UCLA found out. He's not as big as Torain, but he is quick, and has some tackle breaking ability. He is usually spelled by Dmitri Nance in short yardage situations, and in the red zone. Nance has some bulk and power.
The passing game is also scaled back. There are no option routes. The offense is almost exclusively coming from a set play and/or the pre snap read. This has been a blessing and a curse for Carpenter. He is second in pass efficiency to only Dennis Dixon, and he has already thrown for as many yards last season in about fourty fewer attempts. But Carpenter reminds me a lot of Rob Johnson. He has a high completion percentage and has thrown far fewer INTs this year. There are two reasons for that. One is that he improved his accuracy and makes better pre snap reads. The second though is that he holds the ball until someone is open, and if they don't come open, he doesn't throw it.
Carpenter just doesn't throw many balls away, and I've seen a ton of ASU games. The Devils have taken 43 sacks this season to lead the conference, and most of it is on Carpenter, not the offensive line. He is a one read QB, of which there are plenty in college football.
Some guys make their one read and then run out of the pocket. Other guys make their one read and then try to squeeze the ball in to a covered receiver. Carpenter looks at is first read...and looks...and looks. He won't throw the ball unless the first guy is open, and if the player is open, it usually results in a sack.
Carpenter has done his best to use all of his receivers. Four players have at least 25 catches. Sophomore Chris McGaha is the go to guy despite not scoring any TDs so far this season. Michael Jones is the red zone/jump ball guy because he is 6-4. Kyle Williams and the disappointing Rudy Burgess round out the receiving corps. Brent Miller is a serviceable TE, but he is not a special player like his brother.
The Sun Devil passing game is similar to Oregon State's. They run a one back three wide set on most downs, but will also mix in ace, double tight end sets. They will also use the shotgun quite a bit. They run a lot of intermediate routes by the wide receivers. The difference is that ASU mostly throws the intermediate routes and not the clear outs underneath. Carpenter just does not check down very often. They do not throw to the backs much. The top three backs have only 19 catches combined, and most of those are on screen passes.
Arizona State Defense vs. USC Offense
This group has to be the most conservative defense SC has seen all season. They blitz less than any conference team I've seen on tape. Even Cal blitzes more. They run a base 4-3 with the linebackers in traditional spots. They don't run a lot of over or under. They will play games with the backers and show blitz on passing downs, but they rarely come. They are a strict Cover Two team.
They will sometimes play one corner up, or cheat up the strong safety. But they do not gamble against anyone. Even against UCLA, who was pass challenged because they were forced to start Osaar Rashaan at QB, the Devils refused to put eight in the box. As a result, they got gashed in the first half of the game by a walk on tailback.
Still, the Sun Devils have played very well on defense. Only SC has a better scoring defense. They have done a decent job of forcing turnovers, they've intercepted a lot of passes because of their scheme, and because they take care of the football on offense, they lead the conference in turnover margin. They have been solid against the run for most of the year. They are second in the conference in pass efficiency defense. They have been the best team in the conference on third down.
This team forces you to grind it out. They don't pressure the passer very well, and they don't have many playmakers on defense. DE Dexter Davis is the only player on the team with at least four sacks. In fact, their best defensive player might be true freshman Omar Bolden, although strong safety Troy Nolan has five INTs. They play zone, they stay disciplined in the running game, and they wait for you to make a mistake.
I like this match-up a lot for the Trojans, especially against the ASU offense. As I said before, it most closely mirrors OSU's offensive scheme, and the Trojans obliterated the Beaver offense. The Trojans gave up a ton of rushing yards against Cal, but in my opinion, the rain had a lot to do with that. Thursday will be a beautiful day in the desert, and everyone but Oregon has struggled to run the ball against SC in ideal conditions. I think SC will be able to bottle up Herring and Nance for the most part, even if Keith Rivers doesn't play.
Carpenter is tailor made for the Trojans. He has some mobility, so the Trojans need to be mindful of that. But ASU won't be running him much if at all because he has a bum thumb, and their back up QB is not ready to play. He is going to hold on to the ball and he will take some sacks. Here are some opponent sack numbers: OSU had four, Stanford had six, WSU had seven, UW had four, Oregon had nine, UCLA had six, and even Cal and their terrible pass rush had two. I expect the Trojans to get at least seven sacks in this game, and ASU's offense will struggle, as it did against UCLA.
The difference between SC and UCLA is that while the Trojans have struggled on offense, they are inept as UCLA is. If Booty has time to throw against zones, he can make the throws. Plus this defense invites you to run the ball some, and the Trojans would be happy to oblige with a rejuvenated Chauncey Washington and a deadly Joe McKnight. As usual with this Trojan offense, it won't be a thing of beauty, but it will be enough to get the job done.
ASU has a curious knack for starting slow. They trailed 14-0 against Colorado, 19-0 against OSU, 10-7 at the half to WSU, 20-7 against Cal, 21-3 against Oregon, and 10-0 against UCLA. Only one of those teams is ranked, and that team handed the Sun Devils their only loss of the season. The Sun Devils will start slow against the other ranked team on their schedule, and that team will hand them their second loss.
USC will run the ball well, pass just enough to score, and the defense will baffle ASU for most of the game. This time, there won't be the big offensive plays to bail them out, because the Trojans just don't give them up.