Know your foe: Arizona State

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DevilsDigest.com publisher Hod Rabino joins SCPlaybook.com to let USC fans in on the latest happenings at Arizona State and keys for a Trojan win against the Sun Devils.

1. After a strong start, what's the morale of ASU going 0-3 the last three weeks, especially when up to last weekend they were in the thick of the race to win the Pac-12 South?
Rabino: One advantage of the new team culture that first-year Head Coach Todd Graham has implemented is that this ASU team is even keel so the coaches and the players are all saying the right things and certainly projecting an impression that they are not beaten down by this three-game skid. They feel that they still have a lot to play for and that a win against USC puts them back on track to compete for the Pac-12 South.

Everyone knows that last year's team imploded when the losses started to pile on. So far I'm not seeing that with this year's squad.

2. Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State, USC ... at the beginning of the season it may have been difficult to predict the success of UCLA and OSU, did they know this tough stretch was coming from the beginning of the season?
Rabino: In all honesty I think the team knew that they better take care of business in first half of the season, which they did for the most part with a 5-1 record, because the second half was going to be much more challenging of a schedule and that unfortunately has materialized as well.

I think in the pre-season the realistic fans penciled in losses against Oregon and USC, and viewed UCLA and Oregon State as 50-50 games at worst. In these two contests ASU started out strong but just couldn't finish. The loss to UCLA hurts even more because it was decided by a game-ending field goal and overall was a game that the Sun Devils were very capable of winning. If they did notch a victory in that contest, maybe they face Oregon State with a more confidence and who knows how that game in Corvallis unfolds under that scenario?

3. Todd Graham in his first season, generally (perhaps record aside now), what's the feeling around the program and the direction it's heading?
Rabino: Even though the mood among the Sun Devil nation members is pretty somber these days, it's not hard to see that despite some eerie similarities to last year that this 2012 team is much different.

Accountability and discipline on and off the field is something that Graham hasn't just been talking about but actually employing ever since he was hired. The way the players are conducting themselves is night and day compared to 2011. It's not only in their dealings with the community and media, but also through academics and play on the field. We're seeing less penalties and unnecessary extracurricular activities, a team that plays hard until the last whistle, and upperclassmen that generally had disappointing careers until now that are finally blossoming. Recruiting in general has been going fairly well considering this is the first full year that the staff has been pursuing prospects.

Everyone realizes that it's going to take time to build this program and fans would have accepted a 6-6 season as long as ASU wasn't getting embarrassed out there with every loss. After a 5-1 start, expectations naturally were being elevated but then the team hit the challenging part of the schedule I talked about and the Sun Devils are now looking like the team fans has tempered expectations for.

But overall, I think the majority of ASU followers do feel that the program is in better hands now and has a blueprint that should pay dividends in a few years.

4. What has ASU's offense been doing to continue to get the ball to Marion Grice in the end zone and how have opposing defense's allowed him to rack up TDs?
Rabino: Not throwing the ball to their wide receivers. I don't mean to be funny by that statement, because in reality that group, albeit severely inexperienced, has been such a disappointment that quarterback Taylor Kelly has had no choice but to have his running backs and tight ends serve as his primary aerial targets.

I think the Oregon State defense (as well as the Oregon defense for that matter) has done a better job than others stopping that approach. But ASU's normally stout running game has helped open passing lanes not only for Marion Grice, but also for his fellow running back D.J. Foster (who has actually been lining up often in recent weeks at wide receiver) and tight end Chris Coyle. Additionally, Kelly's mobility has him throwing on the run on several occasions and Grice has been an effective outlet in those scenarios.

5. ASU appears to have emphasized their running game this season and putting up near historical numbers in the last 25 years of the program, what's (or who) has been the catalyst to this?
Rabino: Graham made no bones about this year's offensive scheme being heavily based on the run and like many other aspects he followed through with his actions. Coming into this season it was quite evident that the running back group with Grice, Foster and Cameron Marshall was going to have to carry the load in light of the aforementioned inexperienced wide receiver group. It's not like the coaching staff has any other option but to make this group the focal part of the offense and this scheme has been very successful not only with the ground attack, but also taking pressure off of Taylor Kelly and allowing his to be a very efficient signal caller.

6. Do you think ASU has the secondary to stop Lee/Woods?
Rabino: Excellent question. If you asked me that prior to the last two games, I would say that this Sun Devil secondary could definitely present the Trojans a tough challenge. However, the last two games this unit has taken its lumps and then some.

Now, I think that key injuries the last couple of week to defensive linemen Will Sutton and Junior Onyeali have severely hindered ASU's pass rush and that naturally affected the secondary because when that tandem was playing well earlier in the year ASU's pass defense was outstanding.

Without a doubt, the secondary's abilities are being questioned these days. If Sutton and Onyeali can be disruptive like they normally are I think USC's passing game could slow down and allow the Sun Devils' defensive backfield to once again play at high level. Either way, the Trojans' wide receivers will be the stiffest test ASU has faced all year.

7. What's the outside perception of USC? Does ASU consider them a serious test despite the Trojans' 3 losses this season?
Rabino: Objectively speaking, even in their victories USC has been less than impressive and for the most part, and much like ASU in that regard, when the Trojans faced a Top 25 opponent this season they did come away defeated, which unfairly or not discounts all the victories earned to this point.

To some extent I think the Sun Devils thought they may be meeting a one-loss Trojan squad this weekend, so they probably feel this is a more winnable contest than it was at season's start. Nonetheless, I think that ASU knows that anything but their best won't be enough to come away with a win this weekend let alone in a venue where they haven't won since 1999.

8. Playmakers on ASU who have to have a great game in order for ASU to succeed on both sides of the ball?
Rabino: Marion Grice, D.J. Foster both on the ground and in the passing game, and tight end Chris Coyle. They are by far the biggest offensive playmakers on the team and each will have to have an above average performance on Saturday for ASU to have a realistic chance at a win.

On defense, Will Sutton and Junior Onyeali for the reasons I mentioned earlier, linebackers Brandon Magee who is the team leading tackler and Chris Young especially against the run, and cornerbacks Osahon Irabor and Deveron Carr who again will have their hands full with USC's exceptional wide receivers.

9. Second in the nation for tackles for loss?
Two words – Will Sutton. Whether it's racking up sacks and tackles for loss himself or helping create opportunities for his fellow defensive teammates, the junior has been a force to reckon with all season. He has exceptional combination of power and speed and his technique has given fits to opposing offensive linemen every week. Furthermore, this defense is very aggressive in nature so linebackers Magee, Young and Carl Bradford have each been able to amass quite a few TFL's.

10. If ASU ______ they win. If USC _____ they win.
Rabino: If ASU slows down USC's passing game and keep's the USC defense off balance they will win.

If USC is able to protect Barkley and consequently allow the passing game to flourish and stay away from committing several penalties and turnovers they will win.

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