With two straight losses and three on the year overall, the now 21st-ranked USC Trojans set out to close the regular season on a strong note, starting with this weekend's matchup with the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Coliseum.
Lane Kiffin's Trojans went toe-to-toe with the second-ranked Oregon Ducks last week, but came out on the losing end of a thrilling 62-51 slugfest. The loss dropped USC to 6-3 overall and 4-3 in league play, good for second place in the Pac-12 South, a half game behind UCLA.
Todd Graham's Sun Devils are just a half game behind the Trojans in the South Division standings at 3-3. Arizona State has also lost two straight games with tough losses to UCLA (45-43) and most recently, Oregon State (36-26).
This is Homecoming for the Trojans who hold an 18-10 series advantage against the Sun Devils. USC had an 11-game win streak in the series halted last season.
While not quite the offensive juggernaut that USC faced last weekend, the Sun Devils do present their own challenges for a defense. Arizona State brings a balanced attack into this contest, averaging a hefty 457.8 yards per game, with a good mix of the run (187.7 ypg) and the pass (270.1 ypg).
Quarterback Taylor Kelly has been efficient under center, completing 65.5 percent of his throws thus far, for 2,161 yards, with 20 TDs against six INTs. Wideout Chris Coyle is the top target downfield (43 receptions, 501 yards, two TDs), but tailbacks D.J. Foster (31 receptions, 463 yards, four TDs) and Marion Grice (28 receptions, 331 yards, seven TDs) have made their share of big plays in the passing game as well.
The ASU defense has been gashed at times, but remains one of the top units in the wide open Pac-12 nonetheless, limiting foes to just 23.3 ppg and 333.3 yards of total offense. The pass defense has been particularly strong, allowing a meager 161.6 ypg (seventh nationally). That is aided in part by a feverish pass rush that has recorded 39 sacks thus far to rank tied for first in the nation.
Linebacker Brandon Magee is one of the top defensive players in the conference and leads the Sun Devils in stops with 70, with 5.5 sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovery. Other defenders that get upfield and disrupt things are fellow linebacker Chris Young (60 tackles, 13.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks) and defensive linemen Carl Bradford (51 tackles, 12.0 TFLs, 7.5 sacks), Will Sutton (42 tackles, 15.0 TFLs, 9.5 sacks) and Junior Onyeali (15 tackles, 7.0 TFLs, 5.0 sacks).
Even a record-setting performance by the USC offense wasn't enough in the end against Oregon last week. Quarterback Matt Barkley completed 35-of-54 passes, for 484 yards and five TDs, while wideout Marqise Lee accounted for 408 all- purpose yards in the loss.
Barkley took the high road when discussing the game and the team's defensive struggles against the Ducks.
"We've done a great job moving the ball since the beginning of the season, and we've just got to do a better job putting the ball in the end zone," Barkley said.
Barkley's season may not be Heisman worthy, but he has still put up big numbers, completing 65.2 percent of his throws for 2,750 yards, with 30 TDs.
It definitely helps to have All-Americans on the outside in Lee (88 receptions, 1,286 yards, 12 TDs) and Robert Woods (59 receptions, 656 yards, 10 TDs).
Todd Graham is certainly aware of USC's talented trio.
"Obviously Barkley has a phenomenal arm and a great deep ball," said Graham at his weekly press conference. "I've watched some passes that are just phenomenal. Marqise Lee is hands-down the best receiver in the country. He can catch the short screen pass, he can catch the vertical route, and he can take it to the house any time he puts his hands on the ball. Watching the Arizona game and watching the 300-plus yards receiving was absolutely phenomenal. Obviously, Woods is right there. He gets the ball the most. They have other receivers as well, but Woods is a special receiver."
The ground game can get the job done too (152.0 ypg), led by Penn State transfer Silas Redd (732 yards, nine TDs).
The USC defense has had its ups and downs this season and last weekend was definitely a low point, as the Trojans yielded a whopping 730 yards to the Ducks.
That will affect any team's overall numbers, as USC is now allowing 406.4 yards per game on the year. Still, this unit has made plays all year long, with 30 sacks and 24 forced turnovers.
There is All-American talent at every level, starting with safety T.J. McDonald (team-high 76 tackles) in the secondary. Sophomore linebackers Dion Bailey (62 tackles, 7.0 TFLs, four INTs) and Hayes Pullard (58 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, one INT) handle things in the middle of the defense, while defensive end Morgan Breslin (39 tackles, team-high 14.0 TFLs, team-high 8.0 sacks) and defensive tackle Leonard Williams (26 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) have been disruptive along the defensive line.