Saturday's game between ASU and USC is about as must win as must win games come. Here are the best and worse case scenarios for the Sun Devils as both teams face the possibility of irrelevancy following this game.
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is going to reek of desperation come Saturday, folks.
The Arizona State Sun Devils and USC Trojans are entering this South division showdown with a combined losing streak of five games between them and the next loss for either team will effectively put a fork in their Pac-12 Championship chances.
Conversely, a win for either team would put them in a very advantageous position for a Pac-12 South title assuming that they can take care of their business the rest of the way.
Yes, you read that correctly. Despite fans of the maroon and gold seeing flashes of 2011 all over again, Arizona State could still get another chance at Oregon if they win out and UCLA drops their final two games to USC and Stanford.
Sure, there's a lot of ifs in the scenario but I like to take the Lloyd Christmas approach in these situations. As long as you're telling me there's a chance, I'm still going to keep hope alive as I wear one great, big chipped-tooth grin.
So let's take at the best and worse case scenarios for the Sun Devils in their most pivotal matchup of the 2012:
Best Case Scenario
1) ASU's pass rush makes Matt Barkley reconsider his day job: Let's be honest here for a second; there's absolutely no way Arizona State's secondary can stop Marqise Lee and Robert Woods by themselves. The Devils best chance at surviving their almost inevitable onslaught is to make Barkley as uncomfortable as possible with a collapsing pocket. Luckily for the Devils, that's exactly what they do best. ASU is tied for first in the nation with 39 sacks on the year as they feature a distinct ability to get to the passer from many different angles. Will Sutton played tremendously last week despite clearly not being at 100% so I imagine he'll command some double teams this week which should free up everyone else. If ASU's defense can force Barkley's eyes away from his down field targets like they did last week against OSU's Cody Vaz (14-of-33, one interception, one forced fumble), they might be able to give Taylor Kelly and company just enough stops to make up for their offensive shortcomings.
2) USC's recent frustrations continue to reciprocate into penalties: It's no secret that a 6-3 record is unfamiliar territory for the Trojans and much of their struggles are due to their overall sloppiness. USC averages 152.9 penalty yards per game, about 75 more penalty yards a game than Todd Graham's disciplined ASU squad (77.6). The Devils offense is considerably less explosive then the Trojans' so they'll need those free yards to help them stay on the field. USC tends to generate a lot of late hit and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties so if Arizona state jumps out to an early lead, the Trojans might not be able to help shooting themselves in the foot.
3) D.J. Foster does his best Kenjon Barner impression: USC was gashed last weekend by the Oregon running back as Barner compiled a program record 321 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Even though the Trojans seem to have an All-American talent at every level of their defense, the unit still has a tendency to fall asleep on their assignments from time to time. A huge reason for Barner's success this past Saturday was his patience so Foster will need follow his blockers with that natural instinct of when to make his cut. USC's front seven is a bit undersized, so I imagine that ASU's offensive line could have some success sealing their running lanes. If the big men up front are able to get to the second level for the Devils, Foster could be in for a career day. And when the run game is effective, Arizona State's offense has can get into an uncanny rhythm.
Worst Case Scenario
1) USC comes out at motivated as we feared: Usually when you put up 51 points, your starters are watching the final quarter of action from the sidelines. Instead,USC was handed the defeat last week against Oregon. It's a difficult pill to swallow when you play arguably your best game and still lose by two scores but you can either use those circumstances as a mental impediment or an invigorating impetus. And if they decide to kick it up a notch, things could get frightening. The Trojans have already put up 1,233 total yards of offense in their past two losses so if they mange to raise their game even higher, the Sun Devils could feel the acute wrath of a team that was formerly considered the best in the nation.
2) ASU over commits to their pass defense once again: The Devils seemingly had the correct plan of attack last Saturday against an air-oriented Beavers team but they took their mediocre run game far too lightly. RB Terron Ward (19 carries, 146 yards, one TD) almost had five times his season total of rushing yards in one game with defenders reacting poorly and tackling even worse. In that past, Arizona State has been a team that stuffs the run first to allow their potent pass rushers to tee off on the quarterback. The Devils HAVE to get back to that strategy against a Trojans team that can go far more run heavy than most fans realize. Silas Redd reminds me a lot of 2011 Cameron Marshall. And if you remember how many defenders he trucked last season, then you'd realize how important it will be for ASU to play some sound run defense.
3) Taylor Kelly is ASU's leading rusher: If you haven't caught on yet, Arizona State does not fare well when Kelly is asked to carry the offense in both departments. Kelly has been the leading rusher in both of the Devils' road losses this season (Mizzou and Oregon State) and those were two of the games in which ASU's offense was noticeably horrendous. As great as he's been at times this season, Kelly needs help. He's deceptively fast but this offense is in much better shape when he's dinking and dunking it down the field. If you see Kelly constantly running for his life, it's probably because USC defensive backs like T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey are having their way with ASU's constantly disappearing wide receivers. And I don't think you need me to tell you that that sounds like a recipe for a blowout.
Final Prediction: Arizona State 31 - USC 48: If I saw anything resembling an inspired, complete team effort last week against OSU, I probably would have picked the upset here. Instead, fans were treated to the team's worst performance of the season as the Devils blew their third straight early lead. Arizona State's defense is built to hang with the Trojans but their offense doesn't have the capability of keeping Matt Barkley and his plethora of weapons off the field for extended periods of time. If ASU's offense stumbles or coughs up the ball, I have no doubt that the USC's high-flying attack will use that as an opportunity to step on their throats. The big plays have vanished from the Devils' playbook and I have a gut feeling that the talented Trojans defense is set to prove they're better than they've shown lately. For those reasons, this is a game in which Arizona State would have to play flawlessly in and I've seen nothing the past three weeks that suggests that they're capable of that.