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October 13, 2006

USC Preview

Arizona State (3-2; 0-2) will look to put the disappointment of two straight Pac-10 losses to open conference play behind it when it travels to Los Angeles to take on national powerhouse USC (5-0; 3-0), the No. 3 ranked team in the country. The game has a 5 p.m. start time locally and will be televised on ABC.

After starting 3-0 to open the season, Sun Devil fans had hope that this could be a true breakthrough season for their team, especially in light of the apparent elevated play of the team's defense under second-year coordinator Bill Miller.

ASU led the nation in sacks through three games and though the offense hadn't been firing on all cylinders, there were signs of a vastly improved run game that could balance out a typically strong passing offense when it finally got in sync.

But that never happened in the team's first two Pac-10 games and the Sun Devils have instead sputtered, with quarterback Rudy Carpenter turning the ball over five times in a bad loss to Cal before returning home to throw for a Dirk Koetter-era record low 33 passing yards.

Furthermore, the team's defense recorded just one sack in the last two games, and gave up 574 yards of total offense and 28 first downs against the Ducks.

Perhaps even more troubling, the Sun Devils appeared listless throughout the regionally televised game, in front of the largest announced crowd of the season and a large selection of some of the team's top recruits.

With his team physically and emotionally beat up, Koetter used a bye week to get back to basics. The team spent two-thirds of last week working on addressing the anemic passing game at the expense of more direct focus on USC.

The team practiced better, but by no means extremely well according to multiple team sources over the course of the two week period. As Koetter has admitted recently, however, that does not necessarily reflect how the team will play on Saturday. He's had teams practice well and play poorly and vice versa.

The Sun Devils need to find some kind of spark to emotionally charge themselves. As down and they've been in recent weeks, a win over the Trojans on the road to end their 26-game Pac-10 win streak -- as improbable as it may be -- would electrify the program and capture the attention of the nation.

It's by no means an impossible task.

The Trojans have been tested in each of their last two Pac-10 games, first on the road against Washington State and then at home against Washington last Saturday, winning both games by six points.

They are not as experienced or as athletically imposing offensively as they've been in recent years. They are not creating as many turnovers defensively as they have in the past. They also have some key injury issues they're dealing with, especially at wide receiver where starters Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith may be limited, and key backup Chris McFoy, the brother of ASU freshman safety Ryan McFoy will not play.

USC also has lost its top three fullbacks for the season and also will play without offensive lineman Jeff Byers and defensive back Josh Pinkard.

A case could even be made that the Trojans are not the best team in the Pac-10, as that honor could go to Cal before the season is finished, though it remains to be seen. Certainly USC is not dramatically more talented than either of the teams that ASU has played in its first two Pac-10 games.

But they're still the Trojans -- with 50 wins in their last 52 games played -- and that stigma is something that has to be dealt with, especially when we're talking about a Sun Devil program that is 2-18 against ranked opponents under Koetter and 0-12 in Pac-10 games played in the state of California.

In order to have any hope of winning on Saturday, the Sun Devils, it figures, will have to be heavily reliant on a successful run game, with feature back Ryan Torain having the type of success he's had in the last two games -- a combined 43 rushes for 304 yards - (7.0 yards per carry) -- and then some.

Torain has been extremely effective playing behind an offensive line that has done a better job run blocking than any time since Koetter arrived in Tempe, even after starting senior right tackle Andrew Carnahan went down with a season-ending injury, necessitating Stephen Berg to shift from guard to tackle.

It's not going to be an easy task against the Trojans, who are currently No. 2 in the Pac-10, giving up just 96 yards per game on the ground, at 3.4 yards per attempt.

The Trojans are returning nose tackle Sedrick Ellis from a knee injury to help provided a stop-gap up the middle, thought it's unclear how effective he'll be in this contest.

What is certain is that in the Trojans' new 3-4 alignment they're employing this season, the linebacking corps. is performing very well and spearheading the defense.

Interior linebacker Rey Maualuga has been very successful coming up against the run and he's leading the team with 36 tackles, while weakside linebacker Keith Rivers is second on the team in the category and defensive end/outside linebacker Brian Cushing has seen an increased effectiveness as a result of the change. Senior strongside linebacker Dallas Sartz -- the only senior starter on defense -- is also playing relatively well, with 23 tackles.

It's going to be a tough task for the ASU offense to continue to be successful running against this defense due to its scheming, strength up front and lateral coverage of the field. But getting the passing game back in sync will perhaps be an even tougher task, especially considering Berg and his teammates on the line gave up six sacks against Oregon.

The good news for the Sun Devils is that it appears likely that USC coach Pete Carroll will elect to focus on stacking the box and stopping the ASU run game in its tracks early.

Carpenter and his wide receiver targets spent much of the last two weeks working on building their chemistry both on the field. They spent extra time in the film room and after practices on their own, with route running and timing.

Whether or not it pays off remains to be seen, but if Carpenter can get into a rhythm early, perhaps with help from a player like Rudy Burgess, who will be playing without physical limitation for the first time in weeks, it could go a long way toward being the confidence booster this team needs to get out of its funk.

Additionally, the Trojans are dead last in the Pac-10 in red zone defense. All 12 times opponents have reached their 20 yard line, they've scored. If ASU can exploit that, instead of getting bogged down in the red zone as they have at times this season, it will provide a big lift to its hopes.

On the other end of the field, the ASU defense will be challenged by a USC offense that is No. 2 in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency, and No. 1 in red zone efficiency with junior quarterback John David Booty leading the way.

Booty is second in the Pac-10 in passing yards per game and he's thrown 11 touchdowns against three interceptions, which is tied for fewest in the conference.

The Trojans also have been relatively effective rushing the football with true freshman Emmanuel Moody and junior Chauncey Washington splitting carries and freshman C.J. Gable seeing some action as well in a reserve role.

The trio run behind one of the top offensive lines in the conference, led by senior center Ryan Kalil, a player Koetter said this week just may be the top player at his position in the nation.

On special teams, junior place kicker Mario Danelo has connected on nine of 10 field goal attempts this year including all four of his tries last week, when he was awarded with Pac-10 Special Teams Player of the Week honors. The team's starting punter is sophomore Greg Woidneck, who is averaging 41.7 yards per attempt.

Gable and sophomore Cary Harris usually handle the kick return duties, with Gable averaging 28.1 yards per return, second only to Terry Richardson in the Pac-10. The punt return duties are handled by Desmond Reed, who is last in the conference among first-team returners, with a 4.2 yard average on six attempts.


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