As the Pac-12 finally begins its season this weekend, USC football head coach Clay Helton thinks the Trojans’ opener against Arizona State will feature more than two favorites for the Pac-12 South: It will also be, Helton says, a battle between two of the best quarterbacks in the country.
The Trojans return Kedon Slovis, the sophomore who completed 71.9% of his throws last year for 3,502 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions. On the other side of the field will be Jayden Daniels, who also made waves as a true freshman in 2019 by throwing for 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
But Daniels missed the USC game last year with a knee injury. So while Slovis preached that the game is about 11-on-11, not just quarterback vs. quarterback, there is some anticipation about this meeting finally taking place.
“Playing any team you’d rather see their starting quarterback and see them at their full strength,” Slovis said Monday. “So yeah, I’m excited for the opportunity this year.”
But, as Slovis noted, the more immediate matchup is against the Arizona State defense, which remains something of an enigma.
After last season, ASU head coach Herm Edwards named Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce co-defensive coordinators. It’s been 18 years since Lewis, the long-time Cincinnati Bengals head coach, last served as a coordinator, and when he did it was at the NFL level.
So USC can’t really watch Bengals film, because Lewis wasn’t the driving force behind those defenses. And tape for last year’s ASU defense is outdated, as the Sun Devils are switching from a 3-3-5 to a four-man front.
So what USC is doing instead is focusing on personnel matchups. Arizona State returns its three leading tacklers from last year — linebackers Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson and safety Evan Fields — and pass-rushing menace Jermayne Lole.
And then USC will rely on a common aspiration of many Air Raid teams: Out-executing the competition.
“I do think that’s one advantage to what we do,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “We’re in our second year in this system, so our guys know it a little better. If you get into the game and you have to adjust a little bit, that’s not going to be near as hard for our guys this year as it was last year.”
STEPP LIKELY TO PLAY
Helton said that he anticipates running back Markese Stepp to play against Arizona State, though the redshirt sophomore is still dealing with turf toe.
That could put the Trojans in a position they rarely found themselves in last year: With all four of their scholarship running backs healthy and dressed.
“If we’ve got all four of those backs healthy you’ve got four different players, and everyone has a little bit different skill set. And I think because of that it makes it really hard to prepare for those guys,” Harrell said. “In this offense if you can run the football, that’s when you win the most games.”