Trick or Treat: Scondi’s USC vs. ASU 2017 preview

TEMPE, AZ - OCTOBER 14: Running back Kalen Ballage
TEMPE, AZ - OCTOBER 14: Running back Kalen Ballage /

After an embarrassing loss to Notre Dame, USC vs. ASU is about the Trojans trying to regroup against the upstart Sun Devils.

Another year of unmet expectations. Fans should be familiar with this by now, but somehow it’s a surprise every year. Goldfish have better memories than Trojans fans.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve given USC the benefit of the doubt. I assumed the team would figure it out. Fans were ready for it to all come together after the second half of the Utah game. Instead, the Trojans decided to keep playing the season like the did against the Utes in the first two quarters.

I can no longer give USC the benefit of the doubt.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to watch last week’s game against Notre Dame live. I was at a wedding. My only way of keeping track of the game is being alerted of a Fighting Irish touchdown on my phone every five minutes. By the time the cake was being cut, my phone notifications were off.

Unfortunately, I write about USC football and had to watch the game the Monday after. I wish I didn’t have to, but you can’t really recap a game with just a box score. Trust me, I’ve tried.

The game can pretty much be summarized by this very strange tweet that the Notre Dame video department created. Long runs by the Fighting Irish. The lack of ability to tackle by the Trojans. Even if Traveler was eligible to play it wouldn’t have helped USC in South Bend last Saturday.

The game can better be summarized with actual analysis. USC got destroyed in the trenches. It’s hard to go against two preseason All-Americans with a true freshman nose guard. Brandon Pili’s dancing polar bear athleticism only gets him to USC, it doesn’t make him ready to play against one of the nation’s best offensive lines in his first year.

The same can be said about USC on the other side of the ball. The offensive line is inexperienced and banged up and got destroyed by Notre Dame’s defensive line. Ronald JonesII only had 32 yards on 12 carries. A couple more carries and he would have broken 50.

With all that said, USC did have a chance in this game if they played perfectly. They did nothing of the sort. After the USC defense forced a three-and-out on the opening drive, Sam Darnold bobbled the snap and fumbled the ball on the very first play on offense.

Replays show that it may have not been an actual fumble. Apparently tie goes to the ball carrier, but maybe not when that player has turned over the ball as much as almost every football team in the nation.

What’s happened to Sam Darnold? It feels like I’ve asked this question every week.

Nothing has changed, he’s just making more of the same mistakes he made last year because he’s become the focus of the offense. In the previous season, the offense relied on the running game. There was no way Clay Helton was going to make a true freshman quarterback the focal point of USC’s offense. Now, the offense runs through him, which is leading to a lot more turnovers than expected. The silver lining is that this sophomore slump means he’s probably going to stay one more year.

Even with the turnover on the first offensive snap, USC wasn’t out of it. They were given opportunity after opportunity and refused to capitalize. The defense has been able to keep the Trojans in games this whole season. They couldn’t against Notre Dame.

The defense got beaten on the ground and in the rare instances Brandon Wimbush decided to throw the ball. They missed tackles, lost outside containment, and blew numerous coverages. Fans were anticipating a bad game from the defense this season. It came at the worst time.

While the defensive performance was bad, it wasn’t completely their fault. This whole season, the defense has kept USC in games and the offense hasn’t held up to their end of the bargain. That can start to wear on players.

Imagine the morale of a defense that created a three-and-out and by the time they take their helmet off on the sideline, the offense has already turned over the ball. Imagine never getting rewarded for your hard work. It can take a toll on a defense, and it did for the Trojans against the Fighting Irish. It’s hard to keep up the high intensity when you know you’re just going to be back out there in a couple of minutes.

Trust me. I have experienced this kind of butt kicking first hand. I’ve played for a defense on a team that couldn’t move the ball offensively. I was ready for the mercy rule by the second quarter. If you gave me the keys, I would have warmed up the bus myself.

Despite all of that, USC still had a sliver of a chance to get back into the game late in the second quarter. Instead, they committed another turnover. At this point, USC’s offense should be taking a knee for three downs and punting on the fourth. It would give the defense more rest and create better field position.

The second half didn’t matter. USC showed the flashes of success which made the abysmal play in the first half even more infuriating. Everyone knows what this team can be, but they fail to play up to their talent level. I’d rather this team be 2-6 and playing at their best abilities than be 6-2 and grossly underachieving.

Surprisingly, USC fans took the loss well. Just kidding, they started rioting on whatever social media platform they can voice their opinions on.

Many people think this is a knock on Clay Helton, but I think it’s a positive. He lets fans know immediately when USC is outmatched. Fans have to face their mortality in the first quarter instead of wondering if they could have won for weeks after.

Sure, USC could have kept the starters in and tried to narrow the deficit to avoid entering the record books. Does it really matter? Fans are only going to hear about this stat the next time they lose by 35 on the road. Hopefully that doesn’t happen anytime soon.

There’s no better person to give this kind of advice than a five-star recruit that left USC his junior year. Pot, meet kettle.

The calls for Clay Helton to be fired have been the loudest since last year’s game against Utah. Either someone messed with the office thermostat or his seat is getting much hotter.

Fans are getting more validation every week this season, but USC cannot, I repeat, cannot fire Clay Helton a year removed from winning the Rose Bowl. No coach is going to want to join a program where winning one of the most prestigious bowl games in your first year isn’t enough to keep your job. If fans got their way with coaching decisions, only Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Dabo Swinney would be the only employed coaches in college football. Except maybe not Swinney. He went 6-7 in his second year.

Do fans realize how insane it would be to fire Clay Helton after this season? First of all, he’s 6-2 and in first place in their division. USC hasn’t won the Pac-12 title since 2008. Maybe fans should focus on winning the conference for the first time in a decade before making the College Football Playoff.

I know the rebuild seems longer than it should be, but want to know why? It’s because USC keeps firing head coaches after two or three years and forcing the program to restart all over again. Chris Hawkins and Steven Mitchell Jr. have played for three head coaches in their time at USC. Four if you want to count interim coach Ed Orgeron.

USC needs consistency. Whether fans like it or not, USC is stuck with Helton for the next year. An honest discussion can be had at the end of the 2018 season. Until then, keep your coaching wish-lists in your Twitter drafts.

Who would fans even want? USC hasn’t hired a marquee coach in a century. It’s not in the program’s nature to go out and throw money at a big name. Who is even available? Don’t you dare say Jon Gruden. He makes too much money to leave ESPN, he’s been too far removed from coaching, and he wasn’t even that good to begin with. The only reason he has a Super Bowl ring is because he inherited Tony Dungy’s Tampa Bay team. Just ask former Buccaneer Michael Pittman Sr.

Unless he’s too busy being a helicopter dad.

Fans jump off the bandwagon at the first opportunity only to get back on at the next stop. It may be hot in Los Angeles, but the fan hood is very fair weather.

Don’t give up on this team, but dial back your expectations. It might be better for my health.

Everyone is exhausted and there is still more than two months left in the season.

I hope the team can switch gears but I’m starting to expect a lot more of the same. Good thing Arizona State isn’t Notre Dame.

Arizona State Team Preview

Note: As always, Bill Connelly’s team preview of Arizona State was invaluable to my research. Credit him.


While their 4-3 record may not look frightening, the teams they have beaten in the last month will give USC fans some anxiety. After starting 1-2, Arizona State has gone 3-1 in conference play.

The Sun Devils beat Oregon (with Justin Herbert), upset Washington, and soundly beat Utah this last week. It didn’t take a failed two-point conversion for Arizona State to beat the Utes. They did it by almost three touchdowns.

The Sun Devils lone conference loss came to Stanford, a team the Trojans beat earlier this season. Fans may remember that game since it was the last time the USC’s offense had a pulse.


This is Todd Graham’s sixth season as head coach of Arizona State. That as long as his head coaching tenure at Rice, Tulsa, and Pittsburgh combined. Early in his career, Graham built a reputation as a mover, but as he may have realized his limitations, he decided to stay put in Tempe. With the athletic department not extending his contract for the first time since he’s been at Arizona State, he may have a little too long.

The success of the Sun Devils this year make more sense when you realize Graham is coaching for his job, but it might be due to his success in hiring coordinators.

Whenever his career comes to an end, Todd Graham will be known for two things

One, the Britney Spears headset he used to wear on the sidelines.

Two, the success of the people’s he hired. Here’s a list of some of his former assistants that currently hold head coaching positions in college football:

  • Major Applewhite
  • David Beat
  • Guz Malzahn
  • Chad Morris
  • Mike Norvell
  • Jay Norvell

Todd Graham may have a better coaching tree than Bill Belichick. His ability to find and mold talented assistants is a gift and a curse. They help him and his team, but only briefly. Once they leave for a head coaching job, he has to hire more. I guess it’s a good problem to have.

Let’s hope his current assistants are less talented than the ones that preceded them.


Like Brian Kelly, Todd Graham decided this season to change coordinators on both sides of the ball. Seeing Notre Dame’s beatdown of USC last week, fans will have to agree that the strategy works.

Arizona State’s new offensive coordinator is Bill Napier, former wide receiver coach of Alabama. It doesn’t seem like much of Arizona State’s uptempo offense will change, but at least the Sun Devils were able to add a guy who knows how to beat the Trojans (and every other team in the nation).

The Arizona State offense is led by Manny Wilkins, who has thrown for 1837 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions. He doesn’t run much but when he does he gets into the end zone collecting three touchdowns on the ground.

Wilkins is efficient, plays mistake-free, and can throw in any situation. He’s ranked 15th in the nation for QB rating on deep passes, throwing three touchdowns over 50-plus yards. Wilkins is also 13th in the nation for QB rating under pressure, and sixth in the nation for completion percentage with no pressure. USC can be relieved because it looks like defensive line depth won’t matter because the pass rush doesn’t seem to affect him anyways.

In the backfield is Demario Richard who has rushed for 309 yards and five touchdowns. Arizona State also has running back Kalen Ballage who has 378 yards and five touchdowns rushing and 17 receptions and 77 yards receiving. He is used all over the field in various different positions and formations.

Arizona State’s lead wide receiver is N’Keal Harry who has 51 receptions for 627 yards and three touchdowns. He isn’t Manny Wilkins only target. Jalen Harvey has 22 receptions for 390 yards and one touchdown. Kyle Williams has 34 receptions for 348 yards and two touchdowns.

USC’s secondary is going to have a lot to handle especially with Iman Marshall liekly out with an MCL sprain this week. It’ll be ironic when fans that have called for Biggie to move to safety are wishing he was playing cornerback this Saturday.

The Sun Devils returned seven linemen with starting experience from last year. Seeing as USC will most likely be starting a true freshman at nose guard, the Trojans will again be at a disadvantage in the trenches.

Arizona State can score quickly. More than half of their scoring drives since 2012 have come in three minutes or fewer. They have big play ability with six plays over 50 yards.

The Sun Devils can also take things slow. They are 12th in the nation in time of possession. If they have the lead, they are going to hold onto it for dear life.

They are sixth in the nation in red zone offense, scoring on 23-of-24 appearances. When they get inside the 20-yard line they come out with points, unlike USC which comes out with missed field goals and turnovers.


Before their bye week, the Arizona State defense ranked at the bottom in almost every category. After their bye week, they are now ranked at the top in almost every category.

Who knew a week off in the middle of the season could be so helpful for a team?

While their improvement throughout the preseason may be a fluke, they are certainly better at defense than they were last year and that may because of their new coordinator, Phil Bennett.

Formerly of Baylor, Bennett has created a defense that is very complimentary to high-tempo offenses like Arizona State. He’s worked with Art Briles, so coaching Arizona State was the logical next step in his career. Might as well get used to being near devils in hot temperatures since he will be spending the rest of his eternity in hell.

On the defensive front, they have a trio of defensive linemen that have pressured the quarterback more than most teams in the nation. Tashon Smallwood is third nationally among tackles with 22 quarterback pressures. JoJo Wicker is sixth with 18 pressures. Among defensive ends, A.J. Lature is tied for 32nd with 17 quarterback pressures.

If that ankle injury keeps Darnold from scrambling, he better learn how to the tuck the ball into his body or throw it away, otherwise USC is going to have a lot of negative plays and turnovers against this defensive line.

Their linebacking corps is led by DJ Calhoun, who is one of three linebackers in the nation not to miss a single tackle this season. I think every USC starter missed a tackle by the fourth quarter of the Western Michigan game. No USC running back is going to win Coach McCullough’s “Y.A.C. Daddy” award if Calhoun is anywhere near the play. Since he’s a middle linebacker, they might provide motivation to establish more outside runs and screens. The Trojans will have to watch out for outside linebacker Christian Sam though, who is 17th nationally with 9.7 tackles per game.

Arizona State’s secondary has allowed fewer than 200 passing yards in three consecutive games. Their senior cornerback Chad Adams has only been targeted five times in the last three games, allowing just 10 yards total in that span. Opposing quarterbacks produced a 156.9 passer rating against the Sun Devils last year. This year, they might not even throw for that much.

The Arizona State defense really flipped a switch once they started playing Pac-12 opponents. They are 10th in the nation allowing just 26.09 third down conversion percentage the last four weeks.

All these stats should frighten Trojan fans.

Special Teams

On special teams, Arizona State has their own freshman kicker, Brandon Ruiz. Ruiz is 23-for-24 on extra points and 11-for-15 on field goals. His leg might not be that accurate, but it has power as he is ninth nationally in touchback percentage.

At punter, the Sun Devils have Michael Sleep-Dalton. He is below average nationally with 38.8 yards per punt. That might not necessarily be a bad thing against USC. More returnable punts creates a higher chance of one of the Trojans returners muffing the catch.

On the return side, Kalen Ballage is always a threat when he has the balls in his hands. USC should make sure to kick it away from him.


This section is devoted to the long time tradition of creating scenarios in which USC can make the College Football Playoff.

After the loss last week against Notre Dame, it would take a couple dozen miracles for USC to fall into the College Football Playoff. I don’t have enough time to create the scenarios for that to happen. Just assume every team with a number next to it needs to lose one or two games by season’s end. I don’t even know if that is mathematically impossible. Vegas still has USC title odds so it probably is.

A two-loss team in the playoff isn’t impossible, but the selection committee probably frowns upon 35-point losses.

USC can still win their division and the Pac-12 title, which is something the Trojans haven’t done since 2008. That should be the USC’s focus before any talk about contending for a national title.

If USC wins, they control their destiny in the Pac-12 South title race. If Arizona State wins, the Trojans  will need some outside help so they can fall backwards into the title game like they did in 2015.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go

After USC fans traveled thousands of miles to watch the Trojans get their butts get kicked against Notre Dame, it’s going to be pretty hard to convince anyone to go to either of the last two away games, if any game at all.

If you’re heading to Arizona this weekend, you must have booked this trip before the season started. Next time, make sure all your flight travel is refundable.

If you need to cool off a little this weekend, then head to Arizona. Tempe is going to be two degrees colder than Los Angeles on Saturday. Everyone should really considering a trip to Alaska since no one should be sweating this much in October.

Since, fans are probably not going just for the game, let me remind you that this is Halloween weekend. The bars in Scottsdale should be pretty fun. Just make sure you get all vaccinations before the trip.

This game starts at 7:45 PM. Most fans might not even watch the game on TV. Maybe Chris Petersen had a right to complain about kickoff times.


Can anyone predict USC games anymore? Should fans just expect disappointment?

On offense, the Trojans needs to score. No one cares how they do it anymore. Just move the ball down the field and into the end zone.

Everyone hopes to see Jones II get more than 20 carries, because the Trojans have never lost when that happens. USC is letting the Texas Tesla sit in the garage and they may only have a couple more months on the lease. Give him the ball. Not just on dives up the middle so he can get stopped at the line of scrimmage. Outside runs. Screens. Anything to get him in the open field.

On the passing side, keep it simple. The offense is at its best when Darnold is throwing slants to Deontay Burnett and curls to Tyler Vaughns. Allow USC’s playmakers to make plays. The Trojans can air it out on occasion but make sure the guy in cardinal and gold is the only one near the ball. I guess I should be more descriptive since Arizona State has similar colors. Throw it to the guys with the Trojan head on their helmets.

Just score. It could be on 15 consecutive bubble screens and fans wouldn’t care at this point.

On defense, USC is a lot more banged up than in recent weeks. Iman Marshall is day-to-day with a MCL sprain. Josh Fatu is still in concussion protocol. Christian Rector left practice with an undisclosed hand injury. The squad that kept the Trojans in games this season might not be there to heed the call when the team is in need.

Stopping Arizona State’s best receiver is going to be difficult without one of our top corners. It’s not like USC can focus on stopping the pass because Arizona State has great running backs in Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. The Sun Devils have a balanced attack and it can expose all the holes in the Trojans defense.

They also control time of possession, so if USC’s offense starts the game with a couple three-and-outs, the Trojans defense could be gassed by the second quarter.

This is going to be a game in which the Trojans will have to rely on their offense to win the game. They haven’t been able to do that all year, which is a bad omen.

Another bad omen for USC is that Arizona State starts out halves well.  The Sun Devils are 23rd in the nation in scoring in first quarter with 8.6 points per game and 29 in nation in third quarter scoring with 8.3 points per game. USC can finish games, but can’t match their opponents intensity out of the gate. Arizona State is 4-1 when they score first. Remember that during the first quarter this Saturday.

On special teams, don’t fumble punts or miss field goals. Pretty simple stuff.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the offensive or defensive strategy is. It comes down to one thing: Mistakes.

Arizona State has only committed six turnovers this season.  Darnold almost had that many against Utah.

It’s not just turnovers. It’s also penalties.

More from Reign of Troy

USC averages 60.88 penalty yards per game, ranking 88th in the nation. Arizona State averages 31.00 penalty yards per game, ranking 2nd in the nation. The Trojans need to stop shooting themselves in the foot with flags on both sides of the ball. The defense can’t extend drives with offsides and pass interference calls. The offensive line can’t false start on the first play of every drive. Tee Martin’s play calling might be questionable, but it’s pretty hard to call an effective play for first-and-15 or third-and-20.

If the Trojans continue to make mistakes, they will lose.

Despite all of this, I still think the USC can pull it off and get back on track. It must be Stockholm Syndrome.

Arizona State can’t be as good as they’ve looked in conference play. The clock has to strike midnight eventually. Given the start time, there’s a good chance it’s this Saturday.

Unless USC is the ugly stepsister failing to put on the glass slipper…

It’s the weekend before Halloween. I hope the Trojans dress up like a competent team.

USC 28, Arizona State 27