Last Saturday’s 29-0 mauling at Mountain America Stadium courtesy of Fresno State University is not the tone the Sun Devils needed to set with No.5 USC coming to Tempe this Saturday.
The loss to the Bulldogs was one for the record books, as the Sun Devils hadn’t been shut out at home since 1988. The eight turnovers for the Sun Devils fell just two short of the program record of 10 turnovers against Utah in 1973.
The eight turnovers shine a blaring spotlight on the offense's struggles, but the ASU defense's shift should also be acknowledged.
"Our defense fought hard and battled," ASU head coach Kenny Dillingham said. "Eight turnovers, giving up 29 points. That’s remarkable, to be honest."
Without freshman quarterback Jaden Rashada, who was ruled out with an injury pregame, The Sun Devils managed to get to their fourth-string quarterback, redshirt sophomore Jacob Conover, after injuries to redshirt junior Trenton Bourguet and redshirt sophomore Drew Pyne added to ASU’s quarterback woes.
Dillingham took over play-calling duties this week after the historic offensive power outage, an attempt to give the offense a much-needed shot in the arm.
"Offensively, we need a little bit of a boost," Dillingham said after Tuesday's practice. "Today, I was a little bit more involved in the offense than I have been. Just to get us going and get us out of the rut we are in."
All eyes will be on Tempe Saturday night, as 2022 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams will visit the Sun Devils just two weeks before another potential Heisman candidate, junior quarterback Sheduer Sanders of Colorado, comes to town.
The likely No.1 overall pick in next year's NFL draft has picked up right where he left off in 2022. He's thrown for 878 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for one touchdown. While it’s only three games in, Williams' completion percentage has jumped a staggering 12 percentage points from last season, coming in at 78.6%.
Williams' play style should look very familiar to fans. The eye test screams a carbon copy of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, with Williams’ pocket awareness, his ability to deliver off-balance throws from various angles with meticulous precision, and jaw-dropping arm strength.
The Sun Devils will undoubtedly have their hands full with the top gunslinger in the country leading the Trojan offense.
"You’ve got to be able to contain the quarterback," ASU defensive coordinator Brian Ward said. "I know most quarterbacks are least effective when they’re getting flushed and having to run for their life. So we’re all about trying to affect the spot, affect the timing of the routes."
It’s the first time a Heisman trophy winner came to Tempe since October 1, 2005, when USC beat the Sun Devils 38-28, with Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush showing their Heisman prowess in Tempe. Coincidentally, that was the last time ESPN’s College Gameday visited Tempe, as the Trojans were ranked No.1 and ASU ranked No.14 at the time.
The victory was vacated on June 10, 2010, along with the Trojans' entire 2005 season, when the NCAA dropped the hammer on USC after an investigation into the university’s athletic program.
Injuries continue to plague the team, especially in the quarterback slot. According to the Sun Devils depth chart, Pyne will be available to start Saturday’s game. Bourguet also appears to be available, but his playing time is doubtful as he is suffering a left leg injury.
Rashada will be out for four to six weeks due to an injury from high school he aggravated against Oklahoma State. It’s unclear when he’ll see the field again, and Dillingham has hinted at a possible redshirt for the quarterback.
"When you talk nine weeks, we'll probably try to make sure we keep his redshirt alive at that point because that's just not fair to him to play him in five games," Dillingham said.
Junior tight end Jalin Conyers will return against USC after sitting out last week’s contest from an undisclosed injury. Senior defensive lineman Anthonie Cooper is also in the running again to see some playing time.
Despite the onslaught of injuries, the team knows they have to focus on their play.
"The mood around the team is next man up," senior cornerback Jordan Clark said. "You got to play football. If anybody’s mood isn’t that, that will get corrected, and we’ll fix that internally, but we’re just ready to play ball."
Loaded USC Roster
Saturday’s game will mark Dillingham’s first matchup as head coach against Lincoln Riley. Previously the youngest head coach in the FBS when he was hired in 2017, Riley has made remarkable impacts on his teams at Oklahoma and USC.
Riley has coached three Heisman Trophy winners, including Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Williams, whom he still mentors. When he entered his position at USC in 2022, Riley turned the program around, going 11-3 last season and coaching the biggest one-season victory turnaround in USC history (7+ victories).
True freshman wide receiver Zachariah Branch will be another offensive threat the Sun Devils must contain. With only three games under his collegiate belt, Branch already has four touchdowns and has demonstrated explosive speed. His abilities paired with Williams could be a double whammy for the Sun Devils.
It will be important for the Sun Devils to note that most of Branch’s offense has come off a punt or a kick, and Branch studies the opponent’s punter and kicker before each matchup to analyze their game. This means graduate punter Josh Carlson and graduate kicker Dario Longhetto were the focus of Branch’s studies this week.
Kickoff at Mountain America Stadium is slated for 7:30 P.M. Saturday, with the game scheduled to air on FOX.
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Walker Smith and Grace Copperthite.