LOS ANGELES (AP) — No. 6 Southern California's first real experience with adversity under coach Lincoln Riley was a good reminder that not every game will be as smooth as the start of their season.
After their dramatic escape from Oregon State with another victory, the Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) were grateful for the reality check this week as they head into a matchup that would be easy for a more arrogant team to take lightly.
USC intends to use the lessons from last week's 17-14 road victory during the rest of its season, starting with a visit from turmoil-plagued Arizona State (1-3, 0-1) on Saturday night.
The USC offense that scorched the field in the first three weeks struggled mightily in Corvallis, while the defense that relied heavily on turnovers maintained that standard while also playing its best all-around game of the season. The late comeback victory energized the Trojans, and they're determined to keep growing from it.
“The biggest thing was that it’s hard to win,” said USC linebacker Shane Lee, who knows plenty about winning big after spending the previous three seasons at Alabama. “A lot of times you kind of take it for granted when you’re winning by a lot of points, but you really forget how hard it is to win, and the thing that gets you there is doing the hard things over and over again.”
The Trojans are massive favorites against the Sun Devils in their return to the Coliseum, where another big crowd is expected to herald the program's revival in Riley's debut season. USC's ineffective offensive performance against the Beavers gave Riley and his coaching staff plenty of emphasis points during a week of preparation in which he had his players' full attention.
“I know it sounds kind of boring, but it’s the truth: We need to coach better,” Riley said. “We need to prep our guys better. We need to play better, and play more precise, and I think we will Saturday.”
The Sun Devils have undeniable talent on their roster, but coach Herm Edwards' firing two weeks ago altered their season goals. Defending Pac-12 champion Utah routed the Devils 34-13 last week in their first outing under interim head coach Shaun Aguano, who is preaching camaraderie and toughness instead of massive strategic changes.
“There’s deficiencies in all three phases, on all three levels that we can work on,” Aguano said.
STICKING WITH EMORY
Arizona State will attempt to pull the upset with Florida transfer Emory Jones still behind center, even after he went 21 of 36 with two interceptions while getting sacked five times by the Utes.
“We’ll take responsibility, maybe simplify what he needs to do,” Aguano said. “Maybe we’re too complicated as a coaching staff. I never had any thought of changing the quarterback. He’s my guy, and we’re going to roll with him.”
The Trojans are wary of Jones' playmaking capabilities: “He’s a really talented dude,” USC linebacker Ralen Goforth said. “He can make all his throws, but he can also make plays with his feet.”
Caleb Williams had his first unimpressive game at USC last week, going just 16 of 36 for 180 yards — and yet his winning TD throw to Jordan Addison was a spectacular timing play that showcased Williams' field vision and arm strength.
“There ain’t five dudes in the country that can make that throw, especially in that moment,” Riley said.
Riley added that the USC passing game's struggles in Corvallis aren't all Williams' fault.
“It’s a fine line,” Riley said. “When things are working good, there’s a lot of people doing a lot of good things, and it can just take one little thing being a little bit off, the impact that it can have.”
Both teams have solid ground games led by veteran transfer running backs. Arizona State's Xazavian Valladay had his streak of three straight 100-yard games snapped last week, while USC's Travis Dye extended his streak of 100-yard games to three while scoring a touchdown and boosting his yards-per-carry average to 7.35, second-best in the Pac-12.
Linebacker Eric Gentry has been outstanding as an inside linebacker for the Trojans after transferring from Arizona State, where he was an edge rusher. The 6-foot-6 playmaker had eight tackles and an interception against Oregon State, and he also tipped the final Beavers pass that was picked off by teammate Max Williams to seal the win.
Williams has been sacked nine times this season, and he was harassed constantly in Corvallis. Arizona State's defense has only two sacks this season, tied for the fourth-fewest in the 131-team FBS.
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