The 2020 USC football season is here. Michael Castillo dives into the matchup vs. Arizona State with a look through history, trends and reputations.
At last, it’s game week. The USC Football Trojans will indeed play this week when they host the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Coliseum in front of…no one. The unusual circumstances for a season opener make it an opportune time to kick off a new column on Reign of Troy.
Here’s where you’ll find a list of 22 not-so-random thoughts and vaguely obscure historical facts, with a few key observations and slants thrown in for good measure. It’ll be more everything bagel than game preview, albeit with more allspice than salt. Or as we call it, the All-22: a collection of facts, figures and takes.
Let’s get on with it…
1. Death. Taxes. USC Football being a struggle bus out of the gate under Clay Helton.
2. Through four official Week 1 games under the embattled head coach, Troy is 3-1 with a massacre at the hands of Alabama, followed by a trio of uh-these-shouldn’t-be-so-close contests at the Coliseum against Group of 5 opponents. ASU is objectively the toughest home opener of the bunch. That’s before you factor in a 9 a.m, kickoff —or 10 a.m. on their never-changing Mountain Standard Time— during a pandemic which hasn’t exactly stopped the Sun Devils from practicing. Beware.
3. This six-game pandemic-reduced schedule is the biggest gift bestowed upon USC since Ronald Tutor struck it rich. With no ranked opponents and only a half dozen regular-season opportunities to stub their toe, never will the Trojans have a simpler path to a Pac-12 championship —if not more. But it’s only valuable if taken advantage of. And if there’s one thing that’s been clear under Helton, it’s that USC doesn’t consistently make things easy on themselves. See: BYU 2019, Cal 2018, Washington State 2017 and Utah 2016. This year they must. Especially in Week 1.
4. Speaking of the pandemic, is November 7 the latest USC opener on record because of it? Nope, that title belongs to a November 26th tilt with the Olive Club way back in 1891.
5. The H1N1 pandemic of 1918 did wreak havoc with the college football season in an all-too-familiar way though. Texas had played seven games before the Trojans kicked off a six-game schedule on November 23. Eventual co-national champions Michigan and Pitt only played five times all year, while Florida’s roster was so ravaged by influenza they could only field enough players for a single game.
6. Believe it or not, USC has opened a season with a conference foe during your lifetime. It wasn’t even that long ago. The 1994 Trojans beat 23rd-ranked Washington in a new-look Coliseum, following the damage brought on by
the Northridge earthquake in January of that year.
7. Ironically, those same Huskies featured in ASU’s most recent in-conference season opener. They locked horns with the Devils in 1995, 1996 and 1998.
8. Saturday will mark the 11th anniversary of the most unwatchable game of the Pete Carroll era, a 14-9 Trojan win over —you guessed it— Arizona State. Rookie quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Brock Osweiler combined to complete 36.7 percent of their passes during a game that featured no rain. Cringe face dot gif.
9. Jayden Daniels is getting his first crack at USC on Saturday, but he’s not the only one.
10. Just like USC and North Carolina, Arizona State’s offseason hype benefits from a starting quarterback fresh off a productive freshman season. And in many ways, rightfully so. Daniels was fantastic for the Devils last year, with a touchdown-to-interceptions ratio of 17-to-2. His 149.2 passer rating was better than Notre Dame’s Ian Book and Georgia transfer Jamie Newman. He’s a major problem for Pac-12 defensive coordinators, especially Todd Orlando when he couldn’t install his new-look 3-3-5 defense during the spring.
11. But now the dual-threat from San Berdo has to repeat all of that following the departures of former Pac-12 rushing leader Eno Benjamin, first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk and four starting offensive lineman, including two-time all-conference second-team center Cohl Cabral. Senior receiver Frank Darby is the only player on the roster who caught more than seven passes last year. All told, Arizona State’s offense ranks 98th nationally in returning production and is under the direction of a new coordinator, Zak Hill.
12. Yes, quarterbacks have the biggest singular impact on a football game than anyone else. But why do we so often insist that a team’s preseason upward mobility is seemingly solely dependent on the quarterback over the combination of a veteran offensive line or an arsenal of proven and potent weapons?
13. On the flip side, in a year defined by how each team endures COVID-19, Arizona State is in position to take advantage of their state’s relaxed pandemic restrictions. They were able to practice in helmets and have walk-throughs before the opening of fall camp. Not to mention, an early spring camp schedule to avoid the Sonoran heat enabled Herm Edwards to hold seven practices in February and March, compared to USC’s one. Does that make up for losing a ton of offensive talent to the NFL? Who knows. It’s at least a start.
14. Last time Arizona State came to the Coliseum, N’Keal Harry broke the Trojans’ hearts with an absurd 92-yard punt return for a touchdown. Two years later, he’s getting called a bust after struggling to stay on the field with the New England Patriots. How did we get here? He was insane at ASU. Undoubtedly one of the most dominant Pac-12 receivers this century.
15. Brandon Aiyuk looking like Reggie Bush in the NFL can only help new special teams coordinator Sean Snyder’s sleep schedule. The former Devil had 169 return yards against the Trojans last season.
16. USC hasn’t started a season with a kickoff return since the 1998 Pigskin Classic. Chad Morton answered Drew Brees’s first career touchdown pass with a 98-yard return for a score early in the first quarter against Purdue.
17. That Purdue game —or perhaps more fondly known as ‘OMG, Do You Remember That Hot Purdue Game’— kicked off with 110-degree field temperatures at 11:30 a.m. local time. Until 2016, it was USC’s most recent morning kickoff at the Coliseum. Saturday’s game is slated for the first-ever 9 a.m. start as part of FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff.
18. It goes without saying, the 9 a.m. kickoff is a marketing ploy by the Pac-12. It’ll put one of the season’s most anticipated conference games on a big national stage. Bold for a conference that famously missed out on a playoff berth in 2015 when Stanford sleepwalked through a 9 a.m. Pacific kickoff at Northwestern.
19. There’s plenty of crow to be eaten about Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards.
20. Despite being out of football for a decade when ASU hired him ahead of the 2018 season, Edwards has done a fine job with the Sun Devils. They are a far cry from the embarrassment many expected them to be under his tutelage. He manages the clock at an elite level and they seem to do little things right during close games, which is more than can be said about most teams. Heck, they nearly won the Pac-12 South in 2018.
21. But while we can objectively consider Edwards to be a success so far, is it really a success for Arizona State? I’m not so sure. The Sun Devils are 9-9 in conference under the former TV analyst. Compare that to not only the 6-3 record Todd Graham had in 2017 before getting fired but the 31-23 record he boasted during his six seasons in Tempe. And while Edwards rightly gets credit for the signings of Jayden Daniels and Merlin Robertson, it was Graham who recruited N’Keal Harry, Eno Benjamin and Manny Wilkins. Thus far, the program hasn’t taken a step forward. They’ve just solidified themselves as a seven or eight-win team more than capable of recruiting Southern California’s four-star talent. That’s Steve Sarkisian at Washington. Moreover, it’s what ASU has always been and would be more impressive if USC and UCLA weren’t recruiting at historic lows. But because Edwards is all kinds of charismatic and got the job with literally no expectations, he’s been lauded for a well-coached status quo.
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22. Saturday will be Edwards’ second trip to the Coliseum as a head coach. While that’ll be more appearances than he had during his 10-year career in the NFL, his one stop as a pro can’t be topped. During his rookie year with the 1977 Philadelphia Eagles, Edwards recorded his first-ever NFL interception at the Coliseum. It came off Joe Namath. For real.