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Friday, November 9, 2012
W2W4: USC vs. Arizona State

By Pedro Moura

The USC Trojans (No. 19 BCS, No. 21 AP) haven't lost three straight games in nearly dozen years. They've lost their last two this season. Can they beat Arizona State on Saturday and keep that streak going?

The Trojans lost to Oregon last week and Arizona the week before. Arizona State is coming off of three straight losses, to Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State.

Here are 10 things to watch in Saturday's 12 p.m. PT game:

1. No distractions? Lots of distractions. It's almost laughable to think now that three months ago Lane Kiffin's mantra was "no distractions." This Trojans team has had more distractions than any other program in the country, including this week's firing of a student manager for his admitted deflating of several game balls before last Saturday's loss to Oregon. Kiffin says no one on his staff or team knew about it. Even so, though, it still has been another massive distraction in a season full of them, and it'll be interesting to see if the Trojans can put this one behind them by this time Saturday.

2. What a loss would actually mean? It is not a stretch to say that Kiffin's job could be in jeopardy if the Trojans were to lose Saturday. If they fall to Arizona State, those final two games against UCLA and Notre Dame don't look very inviting, and a five- or six-loss season would at least get a lot of people talking about his job security. USC's streak of 11 straight seasons without three straight losses means something -- the Trojans have consistently been one of the country's best teams throughout the span. Breaking it would signal otherwise.

3. What about Arizona State? Tuesday's practice was dominated by Oregon talk, and Thursday's was overwhelmed by questions about the ball-deflating incident. Kiffin and his players barely talked about Arizona State to the media this week. Of course, that means little about how much preparation the Trojans actually did, but it bears watching. The Sun Devils have lost their last three games, but they're not a bad team. They've played eight of their nine opponents close.

4. The Sun Devil D-line. Will Sutton is very good. Is he totally healthy? The ASU defensive tackle bruised his right knee early in the Sun Devils' game against Oregon last month and then missed all of that contest and the next one, returning some last week. Now, he has told Tempe reporters he's fully healthy. If he is, he could wreak some havoc on the Trojans' offensive line, as probably the second-best tackle in the conference outside of Utah's Star Lotulelei. You remember what happened when USC played Lotulelei's Utes. Outside of Sutton, junior defensive end Junior Onyeali is also an impressive pass-rusher and could present problems too.

5. Secondary play. The Trojans have so much secondary depth -- relative to other positions -- that it seems ridiculous they would struggle there. But the USC defensive backs have played poorly of late, even corner Nickell Robey and safety T.J. McDonald. Robey was not at his best against the Ducks, and McDonald hasn't looked good since the Colorado game. ASU's receivers are a serious weakness, so the Trojans might luck out Saturday, but this is certainly something to monitor going forward. It looks as if USC has a lot of defensive backs good enough to get on the field but few good enough to dominate.

6. Noon start. Kiffin and his players have said several times they prefer early starts for Saturday games. Well, this is a really early start, the earliest kickoff at the Coliseum in more than a decade. The Trojans' 8 a.m. practices would seem to help them in this department, at least. But a sleepy first quarter wouldn't be a surprise, especially with homecoming festivities likely to make the early crowd a small one. Expect fans to roll into the Coliseum later than usual, and also expect a smaller crowd than we've seen so far this year.

7. Another running QB. Taylor Kelly is an interesting quarterback. Passed over by his hometown Boise State, he chose to attend the biggest school that offered him a scholarship and sat out his first two years in almost total anonymity. Then, when Todd Graham became ASU's new coach last offseason, Kelly competed for and won the starting quarterback position. He has had a fair amount of success this season as a dual-threat quarterback, gaining 55 or more yards on the ground in four games and throwing for 292 or more yards four other occasions. How will USC try to stop him? It's an interesting question, because the Trojans' outside linebackers will also need to keep an eye on ASU tight end Chris Coyle.

8. Marqise Lee. Is there a hotter player in the country right now? Lee has blown up the last two weeks with huge games against Arizona and Oregon and has an opportunity to extend that fame another week Saturday. Based on his special-teams production, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Sun Devils aim away from him on kickoffs, but there's almost no way to prevent him from catching at least 10 or so passes. How much will he gain after the catch this time? Lee also has his biological father, Elton, attending Saturday's game for the first time. Might he have a little extra motivation?

9. Barkley and the sacks. Matt Barkley threw two picks against Oregon. The first one, thrown to Lee in the end zone, was probably not his fault. But the second certainly was, as he eluded the Ducks' pass rush and then rushed a throw he shouldn't have tried. That's worrisome against Arizona State, because it's almost a guarantee that the Sun Devils are going to be able to break through USC's up-and-down offensive line at least a few times. In those instances, Barkley should just take the sack rather than forcing the ball. With USC's offensive explosiveness, a third-and-15 is still significantly better than giving the ball back to ASU.

10. A prediction: USC should, based on the two teams' talent levels, comfortably beat Arizona State. Despite the distractions of this week, they will, by a score of about 35-28. The Trojans need a couple of turnovers on defense, and they need to limit the offensive ones, too. As long as they don't lose the turnover margin, they should be fine. Then there's the next test, against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.