New faces abound as No. 20 USC hosts ASU in opener
A belated start to the 2020 Pac-12 Conference football season adds heightened importance when South Division counterparts Arizona State and No. 20-ranked Southern California meet Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Both the Sun Devils and Trojans embark on the pandemic-shortened season with designs on a conference championship. They were picked second and first, respectively, in the division’s preseason media poll.
But with both programs featuring plenty of new faces in crucial spots, Saturday’s season opener has a steeper learning curve than the first game of a typical season.
“Not a lot of margin for error,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said during his Monday press conference. “Every team that’s involved in this Pac-12 situations (knows that) they’re all important. Every win you get, you feel like you’re in the race.”
Conversely, losses become more difficult to overcome with fewer opportunities to play catch-up. Each Pac-12 team is scheduled for six games, down from the nine in traditional seasons.
USC experienced the horse-race nature of a conference race in 2019, scoring a head-to-head win over eventual South champion Utah but losing its edge down the stretch.
Several key Trojans from that team return, led by quarterback Kedon Slovis. Thrown unexpectedly into the lineup last season in Week 1 after JT Daniels suffered an ACL tear, Slovis set a bevy of program records in an overhauled offense.
In year No. 2 of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s air-raid attack, Slovis will be throwing to standout wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. Highly touted recruit Bru McCoy also joins the fold after redshirting in 2019, the result of a tumultuous recruiting process.
USC hopes the success it enjoyed shaking up its offense a season ago — improving its per-game scoring output by more than a touchdown — will translate with a new defensive coordinator. Todd Orlando replaced Clancy Pendergast in January.
Pendergast’s defense allowed an average of more than 29 points a game in 2019, failing to adjust to the pace-of-play introduced with a new offense. Conversely, Orlando spent the previous five years at Houston and Texas, overseeing defenses paired with quick-strike offenses.
Orlando is one of a multitude of new coordinators making their debut on Saturday. Arizona State brought in offensive coordinator Zak Hill from Boise State to replace the fired Rob Likens.
On defense for the Sun Devils, coordinator Danny Gonzales left for the head coaching vacancy at New Mexico. In his place, Edwards brought longtime NFL coach Marvin Lewis and promoted celebrated recruiter Antonio Pierce to co-defensive coordinators.
Lewis and Pierce are shifting from the 3-3-5 defense under Gonzales to a 4-3 base, which USC coach Clay Helton said on Monday presents “some unscouted looks.”
“[It’s] a total different system than last year,” Helton said.
USC won a 31-26 nail-biter between the teams last November after scoring 28 points in the first quarter.
“Marvin’s got a ton of experience, one of the better coaches in the history of our game,” Helton said.
Helton offered effusive praise for Arizona State linebackers Darien Butler and Merlin Robertson, both of whom enter their third year as starters. Butler and Robertson reflect Edwards’ stated willingness for “(giving younger) guys opportunities.”
That should be more so the case on offense than defense, where Arizona State is less experienced. The Sun Devils lost wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and running back Eno Benjamin but dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels returns for his sophomore season.
Like USC’s Slovis, Daniels was impressive as a freshman with the Los Angeles-area native throwing 17 touchdowns passes with just two interceptions.
–Field Level Media