Matt Barkley returned for his senior season in 2012 with some lofty yet attainable goals—a BCS National Championship and a Heisman Trophy. Though the Trojans will not be winning a National Championship and Barkley likely won't be a Heisman finalist, he has still been one of the nation's better quarterbacks this season.
With the help of a pair of other-worldly receivers and a potential 1,000-yard rusher, Barkley has picked his opponents' poison each game and allowed USC to be in the nation's top-25 in most offensive categories.
Barkley, USC and the Pac-12's all-time leader in touchdown passes, has thrown for 2,750 yards with 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Barkley, one of only 11 FBS passers to throw for 100 or more career touchdowns, currently ranks 17th all-time among FBS quarterbacks in passing yards and is on pace to work his way into the top-10 by the end of the year.
The fourth-year starter and former top national recruit has the experience, smarts and skills to make every throw necessary to attack just about any defense and next spring Barkley like will be a top five—if not the first overall—pick in the NFL Draft.
As powerful as the USC offense was expected to be in 2012, the rich got richer when 1,000-yard running back Silas Redd opted to transfer from Penn State to become a Trojan.
Going from Happy Valley to Heritage Hall has done nothing to slow Redd down, as he has rushed for a team-high 732 yards on 135 carries with nine touchdowns, putting him on pace for another 1,000-yard rushing season.
Redd, who has 10 career 100-yard rushing games to his credit, seems to be at his best as his carries increase as he averages 6.1 yards per carry when he receives at least 15 carries this season.
Curtis McNeal, a 1,000-yard rusher for the Trojans in 2011, has seen his role reduced dramatically since Redd's arrival. In 2012, McNeal has only carried 52 times for 334 yards with zero touchdowns, though his 6.4-yard average shows he is still a threat with the ball.
Speedster D.J. Morgan is the team's third-leading rusher, with season statistics of 35 carries for 186 yards and a touchdown thus far.
Soma Vainuku has been USC's primary fullback this season and has seen limited touches in the run and pass game.
Though Barkley was supposed to be the headline-grabber of the Trojan offense, that role has been played this year by sensational wide receiver Marqise Lee.
In nine games, Lee has had six with over 10 catches and four games with over 150 receiving yards including his freakish Pac-12 record effort of 345 yards in a losing effort against Arizona.
Altogether, Lee has caught 88 passes for 1,286 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games, allowing him to lead the nation in total receptions, rank second in receiving yards and third in touchdown catches. At this rate, Lee is a bona fide First-Team All-American and the potential favorite for the Biletnikoff Award at the end of the year.
Lee has elite track speed, solid size and literally every quality required to not only be a great receiver this season but to end up as a legendary athlete on a national scale and a top NFL Draft pick when his time comes. Though it is somewhat normal for USC to have an all-world receiver with the likes of Robert Woods, Damien Williams, Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett, Mike Williams and others having come through their pipeline over the past decade, Lee possibly could be the best of them all.
Over a season-long scale, Lee forecasts to haul in around 130 passes and could feasibly creep toward the 2,000-yard mark in receiving—especially if USC plays in the Pac-12 championship game—and he could find himself in contention to challenge the FBS single-season record of 2,060 yards by Nevada's Trevor Insley in 1999 (as might Baylor's Terrance Williams, who currently leads the nation in receiving yards).
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of Lee's amazing season is his position mate Robert Woods, who caught 111 passes for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011 after earning the Pac-10 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year Award in 2010. Woods' statistics are still very well above average—59 receptions for 656 yards—while he is among the nation's leaders with 10 touchdown catches and is on pace for his second straight 1,000-yard receiving season.
Statistically, Woods is one of USC's all-time greats as he became the Trojans all-time leader in receptions in only his 32nd career game.
A Consensus All-American and a Biletnikoff Award finalist in 2011, Woods has every trait necessary to be a major game breaker when given the opportunity and pairs with Lee to form a combination that is virtually impossible to defend.
With Lee and Woods garnering virtually all the attention among USC's wide receivers, true freshman Nelson Agholor has stepped up recently as a legitimate playmaker and perhaps the next in line among the Trojans' greats at the position. On the season, Agholor has totaled 269 yards on 14 catches with a touchdown, with a breakout game last week against Oregon in which he caught six passes for 162 yards and a 76-yard score.
Similar to last season, USC boasts one of the league's better pairings at tight end in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer. This year, Grimble has been the top option with 20 receptions for 253 yards with four touchdowns and though Telfer has only caught nine passes on the year, three of them have been for touchdowns. True freshman tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick has also seen action this year.
Productivity at wide receiver outside Lee, Woods and Agholor has been next to nothing as De'Von Flournoy, Victor Blackwell and George Farmer each only has one catch in 2012.
The Trojan offensive line has seen a few moving parts this season, with only right guard John Martinez and right tackle Kevin Graf as every game starters.
Aundrey Walker has given way to true freshman Max Tuerk at left tackle, while Abe Markowitz subbed in for one start at left guard in place of usual starter Marcus Martin. Khaled Holmes is USC's typical starter at center, with Arizona native Cyrus Hobbi having filled in once as a starter.
According to USC's press release this week, Holmes, Martinez and Graf are expected to start at center and at right guard and tackle, respectively, while Tuerk and Walker and Martin and Markowitz each have an "OR" by their names at left tackle and guard, respectively.
As a whole, USC's line has performed admirably as the Trojans are tied with Stanford for least sacks allowed in the Pac-12 (12.0).
USC's Offense in a Nutshell
There's no question that USC will look to attack ASU through the air and then dabble in some effective running with Redd and McNeal. The experience of Barkley, the reliability of Woods and the outstanding nature of Lee give the Trojans an arsenal few teams can contain.
Though ASU has had success attacking opposing backfields, USC has protected its quarterback well. Without doubt, this will be the most dynamic and capable passing attack ASU has faced this year and the Trojans may be looking to their offense to redeem the team for the two straight losses USC has suffered.
Though the defense as a whole has been a general disappointment of late, a pleasant surprise this year has been the play of defensive end Morgan Breslin. A junior college transfer for the 2012 cycle, Breslin's only competitive offers to USC's were from Arizona, Boise State, Purdue, UCLA and Utah—a modest collection for a player potentially on pace for First-Team All-Pac-12 honors.
On the year, Breslin leads USC with 14.0 TFL's including 8.0 sacks, while having the highest tackles total (39) among Trojan defensive linemen.
Elsewhere on the line, Leonard Williams has had an outstanding true freshman season and could be the odds-on favorite for Pac-12 Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year honors as he's racked up 26 tackles, 8.5 TFL's and 5.5 sacks with two fumble recoveries. A defensive end when he first arrived on campus, Williams was moved inside to tackle where he has started the majority of the year.
Seasoned veteran Wes Horton joins Breslin in the starting lineup at defensive end, and on the year Horton has totaled 23 tackles and 4.0 sacks.
George Uko and Antwuan Woods have also started at defensive tackle, and the pair has been productive as the two have combined for 33 tackles, 9.5 TFL's and 6.0 sacks.
J.R. Tavai saw spot starting action at defensive end to begin the year and has totaled 14 tackles in six games.
As a whole, USC's defensive front has enabled the Trojans to collectively rank seventh in the nation in sacks, presenting a formidable challenge for ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly this week.
Though this year's linebackers unit won't be remembered with the legendary groups USC has had over the years it is still a solid trio featuring Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson.
Bailey, last year's Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, is second on the team with 62 tackles while adding 7.0 TFL's. Pullard is third on the team with 58 total stops while Dawson is fourth with 47.
Anthony Sarao (25 tackles), Tony Burnett (16 tackles) and Will Andrew (seven tackles) are the most active reserves and fill out the two-deep at the three linebacker positions for the Trojans.
USC's secondary features a pair of long-time starters in safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey. McDonald leads the team with 76 tackles, while Robey has chipped in 37 of his own.
The starting spot opposite Robey at cornerback has been a revolving door in 2012, as Anthony Brown, Torin Harris and most recently Josh Shaw have all earned multiple stats this year. Harris has registered 28 tackles and a team-high six pass breakups, while Shaw has posted 17 tackles and two picks and Brown has tallied 15 tackles.
Jawanza Starling has started every game at safety beside McDonald, notching 28 tackles and a team-high three interceptions.
Drew McAllister (17 tackles) and Demetrius Wright (nine tackles) are listed as the top reserves at the two safety positions, while former ASU recruit and top junior college prospect Gerald Bowman has been very quiet in his first FBS season, totaling only eight tackles in nine games.
USC's Defense in a Nutshell
USC has a remarkable ability to attack quarterbacks using the talent on the defensive line, while the athletic and capable linebackers help add range and stability to the defense.
The Trojan defense, however, has suffered drastically the past two weeks after performing at a high level the majority of the season before that point.
ASU will first need to protect Taylor Kelly and allow him to have time in the pocket, and the Sun Devils will need to use their versatile components such as D.J. Foster, Marion Grice and others who are able to force the Trojan defense to be attentive to a multi-dimensional Sun Devil attack.
Special Teams Preview
Kicker Andre Heidari, 7-for-10 on the season on field goals, is 5-of-5 inside 40 yards.
Kyle Negrete handles punting duties for the Trojans, averaging 44.3 yards on 27 punts.
Superstar receiver Marqise Lee excels tremendously on special teams as well, averaging 29.4 yards on 23 kickoff returns with a 100-yard touchdown return to his credit. Nelson Agholor averages 24.2 yards on his five kickoff returns.
Nickell Robey and Robert Woods have split time on punt returns, with Robey averaging 9.5 yards and Woods 5.7.
A huge factor that will be seen Saturday is whether this Trojan team has a "BCS Championship or Bust" mentality or if their still existing chance at a Pac-12 title can motivate them back from their two-game slide.
Though a National Championship is no longer an option for the preseason top-ranked team, the Rose Bowl is still a plausible outcome and it is impossible to believe that won't be enough to compel Barkley, Lee, Woods and company to steer the ship back in a better direction.
If USC circles its wagons, it could be a long day for ASU as the Trojan offense is one that has plenty of big play potential and undoubtedly will attack ASU's thin secondary early and often. Even through USC's struggles this year, the offense hasn't been the key reason for defeat, creating a steep task for the Sun Devil defense to overcome.
ASU likely will be able to put a handful of points on the scoreboard, but odds are they will have to repeat Oregon's 60-plus point effort in order to leave the Coliseum with a victory.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
Contain the Big Three
With the exception, perhaps, of West Virginia, no team in the country can rival USC's triple-threat attack of QB Matt Barkley and WR's Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. As talented as Oregon State's Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton are—and as they proved to be against ASU—the fourth-year starter Barkley brings an element at quarterback that ASU has not seen this year.
USC's defense has been on the ropes the past few weeks and opportunities seem to be there for the Sun Devils to score a decent amount of points, but the trick to remaining competitive in this match-up is for the Sun Devil secondary to step up and battle with two of the nation's best receivers.
However, if ASU keys too closely on trying to stop Lee and Woods, other weapons such as TE Xavier Grimble and WR Nelson Agholor can step up in the pass game, while RB's Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal can make the Devils pay on the ground.
Look for Barkley to target Lee and Woods early and often and dare the Devils' DB's to make a stand.
The Coliseum is one of those college football stadiums that has innate senses of glitz and glamour, mystique and aura and all the other intangible qualities that can often intimidate opponents before the first whistle even sounds.
Additionally, with such a prominent percent of the Sun Devils' player personnel hailing from Southern California—for example, this will be the first time players such as Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and Michael Eubank play in the Coliseum—there can be some over-the-top jitters stemming from a lifetime of witnessing the Trojans' dominance of last decade.
With this all being the case Saturday, the Sun Devils need to come out as loose as they can be and execute to the best of their abilities and not allow the ghosts of Trojans past to serve as any measure of intimidation.
ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander played football for USC and was a graduate assistant coach there from 1995-98.
USC S John Auran (Phoenix Brophy College Prep), OL Cyrus Hobbi (Scottsdale Saguaro HS), DE Devon Kennard (Phoenix Desert Vista HS) and LS Peter McBride (Scottsdale Chaparral HS) are all Arizona natives. ASU's Alex Garoutte also attended Brophy, Marcus Washington attended Desert Vista and Deveron Carr attended Chaparral while Danny Clark, D.J. Foster, Brock Haman, Kody Koebensky, Jordan McDonald, Max Smith all attended Saguaro. ASU Coordinator of Football Operations John Sanders was Saguaro's head coach from 2007-11.
USC LB Dion Bailey attended Lakewood (Calif.) High School, as did ASU DB's Kevin Anderson and Rashad Wadood.
USC TE Kevin Downey, Jr. attended Pierce College in Los Angeles, Calif., as did ASU DB Oliver Johnson and current Sun Devil verbal commit Joseph Morris.
USC OL Nathan Guertler and LB Scott Starr attended Norco (Calif.) High School as did ASU's Carl Bradford, Kyle Johnson and Deantre Lewis.
USC DE Wes Horton attended Sherman Oaks (Calif.) High School, as did ASU OL Tyler Sulka.
USC CB Kevon Seymour attended Pasadena (Calif.) Muir High School, as did ASU WR Karl Holmes.
USC DT George Uko attended Chino (Calif.) Don Lugo High School, as did ASU WR A.J. Pickens.