Another week, another opponent with a less than stellar history against USC football played at the Coliseum. While Arizona State’s seven game losing streak dating back to 1998 is not as impressive as Oregon State’s blank in the win column since 1960, the Sun Devils are still contending with history when they take the field on Saturday.
The Trojans, meanwhile, will be contending with a high-flying offense which will put the heat on the defense almost as much as the mid-90s temperatures expected for kickoff.
Quick Start Sun Devils
If offensive and defensive trends are anything to go on, the first quarter could very well decide the contest as both teams have looked near their best to start games.
The Sun Devils have outscored their opponents 341-152 with Todd Graham as head coach and this season they have averaged 15.3 points in the first quarter, which is good for fourth in the nation.
Much of that first quarter production is a result of stand out D.J. Foster and the ASU rushing attack, which the Sun Devils will look to establish early.
Sep 25, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils running back D.J. Foster runs the ball in the second half against the UCLA Bruins at Sun Devil Stadium. UCLA defeated Arizona State 62-27. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Thirty-six percent of Foster’s rushes in 2014 have come in the first quarter. The scary part for USC is he averages 7.78 yards on those carries and has scored two of his five touchdowns early on.
The good news for USC is UCLA was able to shut down Foster in the early goings last week, holding him to 15 yards on six carries. It can be done.
And the Trojans have proven already this season that, with fresh players and depth concerns at their lowest, the first quarter is perhaps their strongest.
The USC defense has not given up a score in the first quarter this season. It is also the quarter with their lowest yards allowed in rushing, yards per carry, passing, completion percentage and passer rating.
Unfortunately, the second quarter is another story, with the Trojans conceding 40 points this season, more than the other three quarters combined.
No Taylor Kelly
The Trojans will be relieved to hear that Taylor Kelly will be unavailable for the game Saturday as he continues to sit out with a leg injury.
Kelly dominated USC in last year’s match up, throwing for 351 yards and three touchdowns.
In his place, the Sun Devils will start Mike Bercovici, a redshirt junior out of Taft in Calabasas.
While he doesn’t possess the running ability of Kelly, Bercovici has a strong arm, quick release and likes to fit passes into tight windows. Those traits are his strengths, but they also work against him at times as he’s struggled to protect the football as was evident against UCLA.
It was the quarterback’s three turnovers, two interceptions and a fumble, which severely hampered the Sun Devils.
Still, Bercovici threw three touchdowns and set school records for completions and attempts in his first start. His 488 yards passing were the fifth most ever by an ASU quarterback. He also led an offense which racked up 626 yards of total offense and set another school record for first downs.
Showing an ability and willingness to spread the ball around, Bercovici made use of 11 different receivers, paying special attention to Jaelen Strong, who matched his career-high with 146 yards on 12 catches.
Sep 25, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici (2) against the UCLA Bruins at Sun Devil Stadium. UCLA defeated Arizona State 62-27. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The trouble is the Sun Devils only managed 27 points after averaging 47 points in the first three games, struggling to find the endzone despite gaining so much offensively with Bercovici at the helm..
No offense to UCLA’s defense, but the Bruins are not exactly the poster children for stopping a passing attack.
The Trojans are ranked ninth in the country in pass defense and they lead the Pac-12 with seven interceptions.
Strong will present a test for the secondary, with a 6-3 frame and enough speed to get behind the defense, but Kevon Seymour and Adoree’ Jackson have proven strong enough one-on-one defenders to hold him off.
Slowing DJ Foster
The most glaring observation of the UCLA-ASU game was the lack of involvement from Foster, who clearly stands as the Sun Devils’ most potent weapon in the absence of Kelly.
Yet the running back received just nine carries and five catches on the night. Thursday was his lowest yardage total since the last time ASU played UCLA in November last year. It was also his first time under the 100-yard mark since that same game.
With 747 yards of offense to his name through four games, Foster is still the danger man in the offense and stopping him will be the highest priority for the Trojan defense.
Steve Sarkisian praised his versatility as a runner and pass catcher out of the backfield, with fluid running in crowded areas and breakaway speed which has resulted in four runs of more than forty yards already this year.
It is more than likely that Su’a Cravens, in his new role at the strongside linebacker position, will be tasked with stopping the speedy back in his tracks. Considering Cravens’ size, speed and ability to read the game, there’s no one more equipped to handle responsibility.
What the stats say…
- USC holds a decided advantage in the turnover department, mostly thanks to Arizona State’s four-turnover outing against UCLA. Those two fumbles and two interceptions account for all but one of the Sun Devils’ turnovers all year.
- It’s no surprise that ASU’s Explosive Drive percentage, which is a reflection of the number of a team’s drives which average more than ten yards per play, is among the highest in the nation. The Sun Devils trail Washington State alone in plays of ten yards or more and sit behind only Cal in plays of 40 or more yards.
- The Trojans have struggled at times to gain meaningful yardage on first and second down. They could look to the Sun Devils for some tips, as ASU boasts a 7.69 yard average on first down rushes.
Projected Starting Lineups
Arizona State Offense:WR #21 Jaelen StrongWR #81 Gary ChambersWR #6 Cameron SmithLT #74 Jamil DouglasLG #55 Christian WestermanC #50 Nick KellyRG #73 Vi TeofiloRT #54 Tyler SulkaTE #12 De’Marieya Nelson OR #83 Kody KohlQB #2 Mike BercoviciTB #8 D.J. FosterRB #5 Deantre Lewis OR #9 Kalen Ballage
USC Defense:DT #90 Claude Pelon OR #52 Delvon SimmonsNT #99 Antwaun WoodsDE #94 Leonard WilliamsRE #58 J.R. TavaiSOLB #47 Scott Felix / #21 Su’a CravensMILB #10 Hayes PullardWILB #56 Anthony SaraoCB #13 Kevon SeymourFS #27 Gerald Bowman OR #22 Leon McQuay IIISS #21 Su’a CravensCB #4 Chris Hawkins