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Thursday, October 12th 2006

Preview: Arizona St.

I’m trying something new this week. For the past two weeks, I’ve predicted blow outs in the Previews of Washington St. and Washington, but picked USC NOT to cover the spread in my ATS league.

Well, let’s reverse that and see what happens. This week, in this preview of Arizona State, I’m calling for a close game! I simply don’t have faith in this defense to get any sort of pass rush and I don’t have faith in this offense to achieve more than field goals when they get in the red zone.

Super Mario Is The Team’s Most Productive Member

Still, despite my pick for this a close game this week, there is no doubt that the pundits have jumped off the bandwagon with amazing speed (about as quick as they jumped on it last year – remember Herbstriet calling USC the greatest team ever BEFORE the Rose Bowl).

I faulted him there, and I fault the pundits now, and I have the numbers to refute them below. But let’s take a look at what my favorite college football writer has to say,

In terms of national-title implications, however, one question stands out to me as the most important of all: What’s wrong with USC?

On one hand, it may seem strange to ask such a thing about a 5-0 team. A lot of other people would take the Trojans’ “problems” in a heartbeat. Since opening the season with impressive wins over Arkansas (50-14) and Nebraska (28-10), both of whom are currently ranked in the Top 25, USC has been less than impressive in victories over Pac-10 foes Arizona (20-3), Washington State (28-22) and Washington (26-20). In each of the last two contests, the Trojans’ opponent had the ball in the final seconds with a chance to win. And in the Washington game, USC’s offense scored only one touchdown for the first time since Pete Carroll’s first season in 2001.

At some point, one of the Pac-10′s many pass-happy teams is going to exploit USC’s young and suspect secondary — especially if the Trojans prove incapable of pressuring the quarterback. Washington State had some success in that department; Arizona State, Cal, Oregon and Notre Dame have more formidable offenses.

Stewart Mandel tries to be more even keeled than most (although his Power Rankings have USC down at #4).

While there’s no question USC stockpiles talent as well as any team in the country, it would be tough for anyone to not be affected by the number of injuries the Trojans have endured this season.

Which raises the question: Does USC’s recent level of play represent the “best it can”? If so, one would think USC won’t be able to remain undefeated much longer, whether that means suffering a shocking upset this weekend against Arizona State or finally meeting its match down the road against Oregon, Cal or Notre Dame.

But before we get carried away, it’s worth reminding ourselves that despite all the issues discussed above, the Trojans have still found a way to win their first five games. And they’ve done it against the nation’s toughest schedule, according to CollegeBCS.com’s ratings (the same ratings previously used in the BCS formula).

One other thought to consider: Carroll’s teams — in particular the offenses — have a history of improving dramatically over the second half of the season. After starting 3-2 in 2002, Carson Palmer’s Heisman season, the Trojans won their last eight games, topping the 30-point mark in all of them, compared with just once in their first five. The next season, Leinart’s first as a starter, was eerily similar. After falling in overtime to Cal to drop to 3-1, USC rolled off eight straight wins, scoring 43 points or more in six in a row. Even as they went undefeated in 2004, the trend continued, the Trojans averaging 33.8 points in their first five games, 40.9 in their last eight.

For all the criticism the pundits have given USC, Sedrick Ellis has a point in calling us spoiled,

“I think we’ve kind of spoiled America in the past couple of years,” Ellis said. “I think what everybody’s overlooking is we’re still 5-0. There’s (four) teams out there who are in the top 10 who are not 5-0 right now. These teams have played really good games against us and we still come out 5-0.”

The fact is that USC is 5 – 0. And it isn’t like these scares are something new to the Trojans or any good teams. The Index has a list of “close calls” USC has suffered the past two seasons…

So the Washington St. and Washington experiences really aren’t anything new. Nor should we take them as predictors of USC’s chances of getting to Glendale. In 2001, the Ohio St. team that would go on to stun Miami in the Orange Bowl, had 5 GAMES where they were tied or trialed going into the fourth quarter. Including against lowly Illinois, who ended up winning only 4 games that season.

Take that and compare it to the fact USC has actually trailed for less than 5 minutes all season.

You read that right, despite what you may take from the op/ed’s about USC’s play in the past two weeks, the Trojans have only trailed for just about 4 minutes and 30 seconds combined in their first 5 games. That is stunning.

They have also, according the vast majority of BCS computers, played the toughest schedule in the country.

It may be, taking all this into consideration that USC is better than it appears from the box score.

Granted, the Trojans aren’t knocking the knee socks off their opponents this year. But the defense is significantly better, and the offense figures to improve. Heck, one of these games, the offense might even turn as dependable as the defense.

Coach Pete Carroll’s USC teams historically get better as the season progresses. The gear shift may be even more evident this year, mainly because the Trojans have used 15 true freshmen — a ridiculously high number for any program, but a testament to the quality of USC recruits. The learning curve is particularly steep for first-year players, who must get used to the speed and physicality of the college game.

And, of course, there is USC itself. The program is at a zenith. There is talent layered on talent layered on talent at every position.

Maybe. But this week, as an experiment, I’m not drinking the Kool Aid. No predictions of “this is the week” for USC’s offense to finally break out of it’s shell. No more overestimations of the defensive line and the team’s ability to force turnovers and apply pressure.

This week, like the previous two, the Trojans are going to have their hands full.

Arizona St. Offense v. USC Defense
The Los Angeles Times knows it, Coach Carroll knows it, Coach Koetter knows it. The key to Saturyday’s game is clear.


Despite Rudy Carpenter’s great performance in the second half of last season, he’s probably wishing his teammates hadn’t nearly mutinied and forced out Sam Keller during the off season. He is on pace to be sacked nearly 3 times a game, it throwing nearly 2 picks a game and at his current pace will end up with a 1.18 TD-to-interception ratio. Check out ESPN’s stats page for him.

Why Won’t Sam Call? I Stay Up Eating Ice Cream And Waiting

So something has to give,

[W]ith a little ball security and solid execution of a gameplan, opponents — even those that aren’t ranked — have demonstrated clearly that it’s very possible to stay with the Trojans and even have a chance to win, and even at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

The problem, as it relates to Arizona State is the team’s proclivity to turn the football over this season. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter is tied for the national lead with nine interceptions. Add in the team’s six fumbles and the Sun Devils have turned the ball over 15 times in five games, for an average of 3.0 per game.

ASU coach Dirk Koetter is well aware of his offense’s tendency to put the defense in tough situations this season, and he knows it has to change if the Sun Devils are going to get back to winning football games.

“The defense didn’t give up 49 points at Cal,” Koetter said, noting Carpenter’s two interceptions that went for touchdowns and the 80-yard punt return for a touchdown. “The defense gave up 28 points at Cal.

“I really don’t think our defense has gotten a fair chance because in the last two games our offense hasn’t given our defense a chance.”

This offensive line has let teams worse than the Trojans talent wise through to Carpenter. However, even with Sedrick Ellis getting some snaps the new 3-4 scheme has proved inept over the past 2 weeks in putting QBs on their backs. Lawerence Jackson has yet to wreak true havok in a game, despite being a near consensus preseason All-American this year.

That is part of the problem with USC’s lack of turnovers. No pressure. Fewer interceptions. True, the Trojans secondary has dropped some interceptions. They’re very young. Dropping back into Cover 2 and not generating pressure is a big burden to place on a young group of DBs. There are holes in that zone. Lots of them, and they get bigger when the QB has time back there.

Make no mistake Rudy Carpenter has the talent to move the ball with the best of any PAC 10 gun slinger.

From The Los Angeles Times,

With the exception of a game-ending interception at Washington State, they have not caused a turnover or recorded a sack in two games.

“We’ve never had a dry spell like that,” said linebacker Oscar Lua, a fifth-year senior.

Not coincidentally, USC’s last two games were nail-biting, six-point victories that were not decided until the final seconds.

USC has finished no lower than fifth nationally in turnover margin in each of the last five seasons and was first or second in each of the last three. Along the way, they compiled a 54-10 record, made four straight appearances in BCS bowl games and won two national championships.

However, after its performance against the Washington schools, USC began the week ranked a woeful-for-the-Trojans 25th in turnover margin.

The Trojans didn’t have this problem early in the season. That might have more to say with the jitters of early season for a young Razorback team than what USC managed in the first week.

“We have to find out ways to pressure the quarterback and find out ways to get the ball knocked around or it’s going to be hard to separate from teams,” Carroll said. “It’s so obvious. Look at the Arkansas game and look at the rest of ‘em.”

USC’s season-opening 50-14 victory at Arkansas was built on turnovers — and scoring after them. The Razorbacks fumbled twice and three of their passes were intercepted, with the Trojans capitalizing by scoring after each in their most impressive victory of the season.

As can be expected USC’s Rivals site is convinced it is more a situation of oppurtune quarterback play and missed oppurtunities on the Trojans.

Both Alex Brink and Isaiah Stanback are capable with their feet, and both were unleashing passes after either short drops or from the shotgun, making pressure on the QB almost impossible. At the same time, both Wazzu and UW were fortunate to cover their own fumbles while Trojan players missed out on four or five almost certain interceptions in the two games. USC’s switch to a 3-4 look on defense – to accommodate its vast supply of linebackers – naturally makes the job of the down linemen more difficult, and perhaps Lawrence Jackson and Co. haven’t quite adjusted yet. The return of Ellis at a DT spot last week was a boost.

Could the 3-4 defense be the blame? The Trojans certainly want to get their talented linebackers on the field but perhaps putting Brian Cushing consistently up against a tackle isn’t the best plan.

For all these sacks given up this offensive line has proven an ability to run the ball. The starting Arizona St. back is averaging better than 6 yards per carry. He’s proved consistent pounding Cal for nearly 200 yards without a carry of over 20 yards. The middle of that USC line will have to play substantially better than they did against Washington, where a lowly rushing offense gained more than 160 yards (actually it was there season average, so not that bad)…

The passing game for Arizona St., on top of the turn overs, has been going to down hill. It mustered less than 2 yards per catch last week and Carpenter’s completion percentage against Oregon and Cal combined is abysmal.

He might snap out of it this week, against a less than impressive and very young USC secondary.

We can expect to see Koetter try to repeat Washington and Washington St’s gameplan. Despite their high flying, quick scoring offense in previous years expect the less than mobile Carpenter to role out often, and find the holes in the zone. They’ll be some home run balls, but even taking the Trojan’s nickle and dime offerings down the field Carpenter could still end up with a 10 or 12 yard per pass average.

His favorite target hasn’t been found in the past two games. However, the very talented tight end Zach Miller may be perfect for this sort of game plan. They have other sure handed possession recievers, in Nick Kimbrough and the backfield.

USC’s DBs Fear This Shirt

Of course Carpenter won’t throw it 20 times in the first half, and if the game stays close probably won’t reach 35 passes. The Trojans will get a steady dose of Ryan Torain and that Arizona St. defensive line until the defense can stop it. This is a different Koetter team, by necessity, than previous years.

The game plan is simple, crash the middle for the run as that is where Torain is going to try to put. USC has too much speed to see him to the outside, and of course,

It seems fairly obvious that the Trojans’ best chance to limit Carpenter’s effectiveness is to pressure him consistently. He hasn’t shown the ability to escape pressure and he’s also displayed a knack for forcing the ball into tight situations. If the Trojans allow him time to scan multiple options or they allow him to get into a rhythm with his favorite targets, Carpenter has more than enough talent to shake off what could prove to be two seriously sub-par outings.

USC Offense v. Arizona St. Defense

How can the Trojans offense pick it up? There yards per game are fine, they move the ball, and against some talented defenses. Many, myself included, put part of the blame on Kiffin’s play calling. More conservative than Mark Foley’s boyfriend….I don’t know what that means.

“Nah, I Swear, I Play Better When I’m Baked.”

Chauncey Washington had a great week against Washington. Even if his numbers didn’t show it (that 60 yard run called back hurt), he contributed as much as anyone to the victory. The running game continues to improve and has settled on Chauncey and Moody. However, it lacks big play ability and so calls by Kiffin for runs on third and long are basically concession to play field position. Something USC never did the past two seasons.

Fine, the talent is young but Kiffin continues to insist that he trusts Booty with any play and any throw. Clearly something isn’t computing here. Either he’s lying about that or his play calling sucks.

Moody continues to go east and west too much, limiting his big play chances. John David Booty continues to keep to his first or second option and stare them down. I expect his second half interceptin numbers to pick up.

The Arizona St. defense may not be nearly as bad as Cal and Oregon made them look.

“We take pride in our defense,” said McFoy, whose brother, Chris, is a Trojans wide receiver. “If someone is bringing us down, we really don’t like that. So that’s why, in this SC game, we have to prove that our defense is good, and shut their offense down so no one will really be talking about us any more. They’ll be talking about how good our defense is.”

Arizona State’s defense appeared to be improved in the first three games, victories over Division I-AA Northern Arizona, Nevada and Colorado. In each of the first two games, the Sun Devils returned an interception for a touchdown, including one by McFoy. And the defense kept the Buffaloes out of the end zone in a 21-3 victory at Boulder.

But the defense hasn’t been the same since it entered conference play. ASU had 18 sacks in the first three games and has one since – a clear sign that the Sun Devils have been unable to cope with more advanced Pac-10 offenses.

“I really don’t think our defense has gotten a fair chance because in the last two games our offense hasn’t given our defense a chance,” he said. “The defense didn’t give up 49 points at Cal. The defense gave up 28 points at Cal. California had two interceptions for a touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown.”

They will blitz. And like any QB Booty will throw many of his picks under pressure. Still, our new QB has proven very level headed. Expect them to try to get their lineback corp after Booty.

They know the weapons the Trojans have on the outside, especially with Patrick Turner making up for his poor performance against Washington St. last week and they know Booty is looking to improve on last weeks performance.

“It was the first time I really felt like I didn’t play up to my caliber,” Booty said after practice Tuesday. “Missed plays happen, but you don’t want it to keep happening throughout the game.

“Hopefully, if that happens again, I’ll be able to bounce back in the middle of the game.”

Booty is ranked second in the Pacific 10 Conference in passing efficiency, completing 65% of his attempts for 1,209 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.

I’m just not sure Kiffin will be willing or able to open up the play back this week however.

USC will get its yards on the ground, but may have to keep the passes short and simple if the offensive line don’t do their job stunningly well. Not that they haven’t been good this year so far.

This Sun Devil defensive line is week. Expect blitzes and running room for a consistent 6 yards per carry perhaps. The secondary may be the strongest unit, especially at the back, as Scout points out.

Josh Barrett and Zach Catanese form what is probably the most solid unit for the Sun Devils’ defense. Barrett leads the secondary with 24 tackles and four pass breakups while Catanese is right behind him with 23 tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Catanese has proven that he is a very good safety with the ability to step up and stop the run. His pass coverage leaves something to be desired, so if the Trojans want to pick on a safety through the air, it will probably be him. Barrett doesn’t have a ton of starting experience, but he can fly and can cover like a cornerback.

With that recipe and USC’s recent history expect the offensive game plan to be “short ‘n sweet”

This is a recipe for more field goals and stalls inside the 20 and 25 yard lines. I don’t expect too many 20+ yard plays from the Trojans.

The Trojans will continue their trend of general ball security. I would be surprised if the Trojans turn the ball over more than once against a defense which hasn’t had much success of late in generating that.

USC will get more than its single offensive touchdown last week – we’ll say 2. Hopefully with some field goals under the Danelo’s belt that will be enough.

Other Stuff

Where Are USC’s Game Breakers?

USC did offer Jackson a scholarship, he just decided Berkley was for him. If Senator McCarthy was alive the choice of Cal over USC probably would’ve gotten the game breaking WR/KR/PR a subpoena to appear before HUAC. Now all it gets him is a huge game in the Colliseum come November.

Enrollment Gets You Free Membership In The American Communist Party

The point of the video is, Arizona St. isn’t exactly the most athletic team in the conference. Play makers have plenty of holes in open space against this defense and special teams. I’m just not sure USC has the mature talent right now to have the vision on the field to make such plays. Certainly not on special teams. On offense Moody has shown some game breaking abilities, which will improve as his decision making and vision improve.

For all the disparaging of their performance to date, if the Trojans win on Saturday, like they should, they will control their own destiny. For the casual fan, Sunday and the first BCS rankings could come as a shocker. USC will have a very, handy grip on the #2 rankings, with Florida trailing by a bit. The BCS computers love us, however that might change as the season progresses. Tellshow has Florida playing the toughtest schedule in the country.

Strength of schedule is a fluid thing, it could easily come about that USC ends up playing the toughest. But if Tellshow is right and Florida wins out it will allow USC to significantly close the gap in the computer rankings. The #1 and #2 positions could be very evently split between Ohio St., Florida, and USC were all three to win out, making a mess at the end of the season.

In reality the BCS can wait. What’s my prediction for this week’s game?

USC 31 – Arizona St. 28