ASU vs. USC: Analyzing the ‘Xs and Os’

Sep 28, 2013; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly (10) signals teammates as running back Marion Grice (1) lines up for the snap during the first half against the USC Trojans at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

What a night for ASU!

Honestly, I never would have predicted that over 100 points would have been scored. I anticipated a slugfest victory for the Sun Devils. Supposedly, USC’s defense was going to be tough to move the ball on. According to prevailing thought, their offense was struggling. However, this is why they play the games. 

The Trojans were sharp on offense. They ran the ball well and their passing game looked good. They looked like the USC from eight years ago, with Lane Kiffin calling the plays.

So now, ASU fans are forced to ask themselves: “Is the USC offense that good, or is our defense that porous?” In my opinion, the answer is probably “a little of both.”

Seriously, the Sun Devil defense still has some critical issues to address. Against USC, it had four sacks, nine TFLs and four forced turnovers. It did all that and still gave up 41 points. To me, that’s incredible.

To be fair, USC quarterback Cody Kessler played the best game of his young career. He had struggled the last two games, but this week came out throwing darts. Kessler started the game seven for seven, moving the chains. It’s not inconceivable to me that a young upstart QB could rise to the occasion in a big game in a hostile environment. It’s also not a surprise that the very talented receivers for USC were hard to cover.

But ASU’s tackling remains suspect, especially in the open field. And the run defense is not there yet.

This game was different from the last two for Arizona State. USC didn’t exploit the Sun Devils at the edges, but literally between the tackles. It was the first this season that I saw ASU bodies being moved with regularity. I don’t know how many times a USC running back ran 20 yards before he was even touched. The D-line and LBs were out-leveraged on several occassions and couldn’t do anything about it. It looked like the front seven was taking on the “whole man” of the USC offensive line. That’s not what you want to do. The defense needed to dictate its leverage across the line of scrimmage by taking on “half a man” and keeping control of the gaps. The result of not doing this was an easy base-blocking technique for the USC offensive line and huge holes right up the middle for the Trojan running backs. This situation must be rectified, as ASU cannot expect to hang with the big boys if it continues. 

On the other side of the ball, the Arizona State offense was on fire. Talk about high octane! This is what Todd Graham has envisioned since he arrived in Tempe.

Saturday night’s game was a clear example of high tempo wearing down an opponent’s defense. The ASU offensive line protected QB Taylor Kelly perfectly. And Kelly threw strikes all night. The running game was solid, too. Not great, but solid.

I find it curious that everyone is going on and on about the 62 points, the 612 total yards, the stellar play of Kelly and how this game got Lane Kiffin fired. But few people are raving about Jaelen Strong. He “only” caught seven passes for 104 yards. How many times did Kelly throw the ball to Strong on a crucial third down? Or a second and long? Strong came up with it every time. He continually took those back shoulder throws away from the defense. Strong is literally unstoppable. His one-handed catch on the first drive was huge. What a weapon he has turned out to be for the Sun Devils. 

The only knock on ASU’s offense is how it performed in the red zone. Inside the five yard line, it left two touchdowns on the field, taking field goals instead. If the Sun Devils want to contend for a Rose Bowl berth, they have to punch it in when they get down there. That’s what championship teams do. 

All in all, it a great effort by ASU against the Trojans. It was a huge victory, which offered plenty of reasons for fans to celebrate and feel good about the outlook of this team. However, players can only revel in victory for one night, and then it’s back to work. It’s worse for coaches; they only get to enjoy a big win for about ten minutes and then its time to correct deficiencies and the game plan. It’s a grind, but it’s always been that way and will always remain so. So congratulations to Coach Graham and the Sun Devils. Job well done.

Now let’s get to work and do something really special.

Topics: Arizona State Sun Devils, Football, Lane Kiffin, Pac12 Conference, Taylor Kelly, Todd Graham, USC Trojans

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