Arizona State will be looking for a return to 2018 when it opens its football season Saturday against USC.
That was the last time the Sun Devils beat the Trojans, and there are similarities to that season that jump out as the two teams begin to meet again.
Both teams are coming off of 8-5 seasons in 2019, although ASU capped off its season with a bowl win at the Sun Bowl and USC suffered a season-ending loss at the Holiday Bowl. The Trojans won the regular-season meeting with the Devils, 31-26.
And that 2018 victory, a 38-35 come-from-behind squeaker, took place at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where Saturday’s game will be played. That win two years ago was significant because it marked the end of a 19-game home winning streak for the Trojans.
This game, too, has all the earmarks of one of the most important games of the 2020 season since it will be pitting USC, the team picked by most prognosticators to win the Pac-12 South Division, and ASU, which is expected to finish runner-up in the South.
But this game will be very different in a number of other ways. Most noticeable will be the absence of the offensive trio that led ASU to that win two years ago: quarterback Manny Wilkins, running back Eno Benjamin, and wide receiver N’Keal Harry.
Third-year head coach Herm Edwards found a more-than-adequate replacement for Wilkins, who threw for 3,025 yards and 20 touchdowns in his final season, leading ASU to a bowl appearance in Herm Edwards’ first season as head coach.
A rising young star named Jayden Daniels stepped in at starting QB last season, But this will be the sophomore’s first look at the Trojans since he didn’t play in last year’s game.
However, he should be ready for his first outing against the Trojans on Saturday, with a full year of playing time under his belt and coming off one of the best freshman seasons for any ASU quarterback. He threw for 2,943 yards and 17 touchdowns.
But it was Wilkins who notched the last win against the Trojans, throwing for 168 yards and a touchdown in that 2018 meeting. His 45-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the game was the key to the narrow 38-35 victory.
But replacing Benjamin and Harry, who have since departed for the NFL, is still a plan in progress.
Brandon Aiyuk stepped into Harry’s role last season when Harry left school to enter the NFL draft and had a breakout season. But Aiyuk left ASU after the 2019 season to follow his teammates into the pro game, a first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers.
Aiyuk was a deep-ball threat who piled up 1,192 receiving yards last season, fifth-most in the history of the program, and contributed additional yardage on special teams, averaging 31.86 yards on kick returns and 16.4 on punt returns.
The most likely replacement for Aiyuk will be Frank Darby, who is the only one of the top four receivers from last year’s squad to return. He proved his potential last season, sharing catches with Aiyuk but still managing to pile up 616 yards on 31 receptions to rank him right behind Aiyuk on the list of top receivers.
But behind Darby on the depth chart are only underclassmen with little experience.
The bigger problem will be replacing Benjamin, who is now in his first season with the Arizona Cardinals. There is no heir-apparent at running back. In fact, there are four newcomers at that position, three incoming freshmen and one transfer.
It may take a group effort on their part to replace the 2,725 yards that Benjamin contributed over his last two seasons when he accounted for two-thirds of the team’s total rushing yards.
Still lots of questions for this year’s offense. The USC game will hopefully provide some answers.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)