ASU vs. USC: Keys to Victory Over the Trojans

Editor’s Note: Coach Mike Slifer, a staff writer for Devils In Detail, offers the following keys to an Arizona State victory against USC on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe:

1) Don’t Lose to Stanford Twice

It’s cliché, but ASU cannot let last week’s humbling loss affect this Saturday night’s game with USC. College players have been known to let one bad performance destroy their confidence in everything — themselves, their teammates, the schemes, their coaches, the game plan, etc. They let doubt creep into their minds and it impacts how they play.

ASU, collectively, must learn from the Stanford game, then forget it.

2) Straighten Out the Kicking Game

This is a no-brainer. Almost every special teams unit is in disarray. It could be because of lack of emphasis by the coaching staff, but that’s doubtful. Or, it could be personnel. ASU Head Coach Todd Graham admitted that personnel changes are coming on special teams.

My guess is the Sun Devils players have a bit of a “ho-hum” attitude about the kicking game. It happens quite a bit. Mentally, special teams is an afterthought. Not a priority. Possibly, it’s a combination of all of the above. But I can’t remember seeing a team this incompetent. Every single unit on special teams is under-performing. It needs to get fixed immediately.

Field position is always critical, but giving away points on punts and field goal attempts is inexcusable.

3) Pick Up the Blitz vs. the 5-2

The latest film shows USC playing a traditional 5-2 defense with stand-up defensive ends and flexed tackles. It’s a scheme that has mostly been abandoned the last 15 years. However, it seems to fit the Trojans’ personnel.

On a typical pass play, USC will have five men rushing the QB. That means all five ASU offensive linemen will be occupied — leaving little margin for error. There will be no uncovered lineman to help double team anyone. As such, they must all block a guy by themselves. It also means the running back who stays in must pick up any blitzer. Seems easy, but if USC does any DL/LB twists or delayed blitzes, the running back will have a hard time seeing it. This could be trouble.

The flip side of that coin is that if the five ASU offensive linemen can do their job, it leaves a lot of space for Sun Devil receivers to get open and do their thing.

4) Make Trojan QB Cody Kessler Uncomfortable

USC’s quarterback is young and inexperienced. And even though the Trojans have a 3-1 record, he has not played particularly well. So far, the USC passing game is not very impressive. So pressuring the QB seems like an obvious key to winning.

Ideally, ASU would get pressure on Kessler without blitzing. However, you can’t game plan for that. It either happens or it doesn’t. This year, ASU hasn’t shown that its front four can get in the backfield consistently. That leaves blitzing as the main option to get to Kessler. There are, of course, two schools of thought on this.

One idea is to assume that Kessler isn’t very good and that even without pressure, he won’t hit his targets to hurt you. Or, he’ll stare down to where he is throwing. So you play it safe, keep everybody back and double up on his receivers, bracketing and playing over/under.

The other school of thought is that since the QB is young and unproven, you should throw the kitchen sink at him, hoping for hurried throws that result in incompletions or picks. The risk here is that it can ruin your gap integrity if the opponent runs the ball. If ASU guesses wrong and blitzes when USC runs a screen or toss, or if Kessler can find the checkdown, it could be trouble.

My feeling is that Coach Graham will choose to be aggressive. He’ll probably mix it up to keep Kessler and USC Coach Lane Kiffin guessing. That’s who ASU is: an aggressive defensive team. The Sun Devils will no doubt watch the USC/Washington State film to see how the Cougars played it.

5) Ignore the “I” word

Outside of the U of A, Southern Cal might be ASU’s biggest rival/nemesis. In the last 12 years, ASU has really struggled against USC — no matter how good or bad either team is. USC has always given the Sun Devils fits. It’s largely due to their tradition and reputation.

I feel that against the Trojans, Arizona State has always been somewhat intimidated. Perhaps it’s because the Sun Devil squad is always composed of a lot of California players. Maybe because of the recent record, the perception becomes the reality.  I’ve seen it as a coach…the look in players’ eyes and the body language.

Anybody remember the meltdown in 2005?

This season’s Sun Devils must be more mature than some earlier teams. They are not playing the Trojans of 2005 or 2008. They cannot worry about the USC uniform and the mystique. If they are heavily influenced by any of this madness, all they have to do is look to 2011, when ASU beat the Trojans here in Tempe. Many of the current players were around back then.

It is truly a mental exercise to take the step to distance yourself from all the meaningless garbage of this rivalry. The Sun Devils must take that step and just play the doggone game!

Tags: Arizona State Sun Devils Football Lane Kiffin Pac12 Conference Todd Graham USC Trojans

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