USC football vs. ASU Preview: How the Trojans matchup with the Sun Devils

USC football quarterback Kedon Slovis. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
USC football quarterback Kedon Slovis. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /
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USC football must shut down ASU QB Jayden Daniels. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports)
USC football must shut down ASU QB Jayden Daniels. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports) /

When the USC football defense is on the field…

Todd Orlando’s 3-3-5

Opposite ASU, the Trojans transitioned from a 4-2-5 to a 3-3-5 under new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. This defense relies on its players to maintain their assignments, often on an island, while the linemen and linebackers vary their rush angles and zones to confuse the opposing offense.

The three defensive linemen, Brandon Pili, Marlon Tuipulotu and Caleb Tremblay, are tasked with being block eaters within the new scheme. They must hold their ground as much as possible to free up tackling lanes for the inside linebackers, Palaie Gaoteote and Kana’i Mauga.

Meanwhile, Drake Jackson shed a few pounds in the offseason to transform from a hand-in-the-ground defensive end to a pass-rushing monster in the mold of Von Miller and Khalil Mack at outside linebacker. The USC sack leader (5.5) from 2019 displayed a proclivity for playing in space during the spring scrimmage last season, and Orlando will now leverage those skills to terrorize opposing quarterbacks.

On the backend of the defense, the Trojans have the personnel to make this defense go. Talanoa Hufanga is a do-it-all safety that excels at playing the Tyrann Mathieu role at strong safety. He provides excellent run support when lining up in the box but still covers effectively against opposing tight ends and running backs.

The boundary corner, Chris Steele (and potentially Isaac Taylor-Stuart who is recovering from a Holiday Bowl knee injury), is responsible for covering the short side of the field between the hash marks and the sideline, while Olaijah Griffin will play the field corner position in far more space.

At nickelback, Greg Johnson is a physical presence to either bring pressure from the inside slot or cover inside versus the smaller, quicker receivers. And finally, 2019 interception leader (4) Isaiah Pola-Mao is back to play center field at free safety in this defense.

Zak Hill meets Jayden Daniels

Orlando’s group is set to square off with ASU’s new offensive coordinator from Boise State, Zak Hill. Hill enters a double-edged situation at ASU. He has a quarterback any coach would love to have in sophomore Jayden Daniels but has few returning starters outside the quarterback position.

Well, how bad could the losses be, you ask? How about this: Last season Daniels completed 205 passes on 338 attempts and featured an excellent 17-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That sounds awesome until you notice that 162 of those 205 (79%) receptions departed following last season.

The sole remaining pass catcher from the starting lineup is Frank Darby who is now ASU’s primary receiver after spending the last two seasons as a deep threat opposite Brandon Aiyuk. Darby boasts game-breaking speed and will face Griffin on the field side of the offense.

Opposite Darby will be 6-foot-7 freshman, Johnny Wilson, while Ricky Pearsall and freshman LV Bunkley-Shelton will split time in the slot.

ASU’s three back rotation features JUCO transfer Rachaad White, 230-pound bruiser DeaMonte Trayanum and four-star prospect Daniyel Ngata.

So what will Zak Hill’s offense look like? The 2019 Broncos featured heavy pre-snap motion from multiple players and positions to stress defensive communication and help their quarterback identify coverages. Jet sweeps and lateral screens to receivers were prevalent in the offense, but the clear goal was to create one-on-one matchups for the receivers on the outside.

How they match up

The secondary is where this battle will be won or lost in Week 1.

Last season, Daniels featured the ability to deliver an excellent deep ball. If ASU can protect him long enough (a big if with essentially an entirely new offensive line), the Sun Devils may have distinct advantages in this area due to Darby’s speed, Wilson’s size and Orlando’s reliance on his cornerbacks to win in one-on-one situations.

Another key factor will be Daniels’ growth. Last season, he was a (quality) game manager that was tasked with protecting the football and taking shots downfield only after baiting the defense in with the run game. It remains to be seen if Hill and ASU will open up the offense and ask the talented sophomore to drive their success with his arm, or if the Sun Devils will be content to continue to grind games out with ball control.

So what are the keys for USC on this side of the ball? First, pay attention to whether Jackson can create pressure on his own. Second, track if Gaoteote has cleaned up his run lane fills and can slow the ASU rushing attack in the middle of the field. Finally, watch to see which side the Trojans roll Pola-Mao for coverage help and which corner they leave on an island. That matchup, whether it is Wilson versus Steele or Darby versus Griffin, will go a long way in determining ASU’s offensive success.