USC-Arizona State has 'must-win' feel

USC and Arizona State have plenty in common as they prepare for their meeting on Saturday. For one, they both have experienced the red-hot blowback of negative national publicity.

USC opened the season with coach Lane Kiffin sitting on one of the nation's hottest seats. The Trojans, however, looked like a team with enough talent to silence doubters and again change the negative Kiffin narrative. That all changed after the 10-7 home defeat to Washington State on Sept. 7. That game featured the most miserable offensive performance the Trojans have posted in over a decade and was capped by "Fire Kiffin!" chants in the LA Coliseum.

Two consecutive wins, an impressive 35-7 victory over Boston College and a lackluster showing -- at least on offense -- against Utah State, haven't cooled things down much for Kiffin.

The Sun Devils? Their victory over Wisconsin vaulted them into the national rankings, but the mind-blowing endgame gaffe by the Pac-12 officiating crew threw the positives in the background. Then they turned in a miserable performance for the first three quarters at Stanford, a strong fourth quarter doing little to change the perception that they face planted in a game when the program could have made a national statement.

But the programs share two things that are far more important than experiencing media and fan blowback. Such as: 1. Both play in the Pac-12 South Division; 2. Both don't want to start the conference schedule 0-2.

Low moments and controversy during the season's first quarter? Fine. Get over it. Or potentially see the season go splat.

"You put it behind you and move forward," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. "Obviously, it's USC, so it doesn't make it that hard. These guys know how important this game is."

The winner of this game keeps itself square in the South Division race. The loser will face a major uphill climb going forward to get back into it. And for Kiffin a loss could begin in earnest his slog toward termination.

For his part, Kiffin is trying to keep the negative noise out of the locker room and his own mind's eye. He's not even willing to consider the big-picture implications for a victory. His priority Tuesday was that day's practice.

"We don't look down the road that far," he said. "We're worried about right now."

Chief of those "right now" worries is his offense. After the dreary performance against the Cougars, the Trojans seemed to find their rhythm against Boston College. But they managed to gain just 282 yards against the Aggies, with the passing game again feckless.

Part of that was QB Cody Kessler and WR Marqise Lee being banged up.

"I thought we started OK and had some movement going on there and some balance," Kiffin said. "Then Cody took a pretty big hit on his hand. From there, his numbers dramatically changed. He was not able to grip the ball [and had] accuracy issues."

Kessler started 10 of 15 for 125 yards. He finished 3 of 12 for 39 yards. Lee caught six passes for 72 yards, but again didn't seem in sync with Kessler.

The Trojans defense doesn't seem to need too much help. It's fourth in the nation in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and second in yards per play. Maybe it all comes together for the offense in Sun Devil Stadium?

“Offensively, obviously they’ve got big time talent, big time play makers; their running backs, wide receivers, they’re as good as you can play against," Graham said.

Graham's team has plenty of talent, too, though it will be without nose tackle Jaxon Hood, who was hurt at Stanford. The Sun Devils bumbled their way through the first half at Stanford, particularly on special teams -- see two blocked punts. But they found their rhythm on both sides of the ball in the second half, particularly the fourth quarter, scoring three unanswered touchdowns before Stanford shut the door.

Graham is particularly worried about his running game, which has been surprisingly inconsistent this year. The Sun Devils have rushed for 166 yards the past two games, including just 50 against Stanford. It would not be a good thing to pass every play against a USC team that ranks fourth in the nation with four sacks per game.

"We’ve been a faster tempo, but we have not run the ball the way we need to run the ball,” Graham said. “That’s probably the biggest concern there."

The Sun Devils’ clear edge is at quarterback. While Taylor Kelly hasn't been as efficient in the early going as he was last year, Kessler is averaging just 89.5 yards passing per game. And this will be Kessler's first road start in Pac-12 play.

While coaches are always wary of drawing a line in the sand before a game, there's a feeling of "must win" hanging over this one for both coaches. A victory would open up plenty of possibilities in the Pac-12 and even the national picture. A loss might end high preseason aspirations before the schedule even hits October.