"Away games, you're a villain," Cobb said with a sly grin. "I love being the villain."
After three dominant wins at the Coliseum pushed USC's home winning streak to 10, the No. 5 Trojans are ready for their villain era as they begin a brutal road stretch. Saturday's game at Arizona State is USC's first of three road games in the next four weeks with No. 19 Colorado and No. 9 Notre Dame on the horizon.
Here are four things to watch for USC's game against Arizona State (1-2) at Mountain America Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (Fox):
Eric Gentry brings the juice
Whether he's hopping on one leg into a huddle to hype up his teammates or intensely chasing down a ball carrier, Eric Gentry's energy is contagious.
"Coach [ Brian] Odom told me if you don't bring the juice, you're just a skinny linebacker," the 6-foot-6, 215-pound linebacker said. "If you do, you can be top in the country, one of the best players that I've ever coached. I took that to heart."
Using his unique wingspan at inside linebacker, Gentry had two tackles, one for loss, and a pass breakup against Stanford after missing the second game of the season with an undisclosed injury. He remains a key cog in USC's defense despite fighting off a nagging preseason injury.
Cobb is expected to return this week after missing the last two games. The team captain's undisclosed injury opened a starting spot for Raesjon Davis, who had five tackles against Nevada and Stanford. Davis' solid performance alongside returning captain Shane Lee and freshman Tackett Curtis when Cobb and Gentry were injured proved USC's depth at inside linebacker and validated the "grimy competition" at the position, Gentry said.
But linebacker has also been USC's most "disjointed" group, head coach Lincoln Riley said, and with players healthy again, the focus will move toward finding continuity.
"Certainly the linebackers have got to play in sync," Riley said. "There's playing your job and doing well yourself, but then there's obviously a lot of communication that goes on with those guys and really working well together. So I think we're excited to find all right, is there that ideal combination of guys that really perform at a high level together?"
Plenty of options
Dennis Simmons may have the best problem of any USC assistant: too many worthy receivers, not enough snaps. The embarrassment of riches creates headaches for the receivers coach as he tries to match each receiver's best skills to specific packages in the game plan each week.
"That is a struggle at times," Simmons said. "I'm not even going to sit here and try to sugarcoat that."
USC (3-0) has had 10 receivers catch at least one pass in each of the first three games, all blowouts. Moving into the meat of the schedule with nine consecutive games to end the season, Simmons, after a long pause, said Wednesday the ideal rotation is closer to seven or eight players. But it took him only one question later to regret his answer because he was so impressed with how his group competed during the bye week.
"Our commitment to them is as long as you're working hard, you earn the right to play," Simmons said.
Veterans Tahj Washington, Brenden Rice and Mario Williams seem cemented in the rotation along with Arizona transfer Dorian Singer and freshman star Zachariah Branch. Hoping to highlight his position group's diverse skill set, Simmons could rely more on 6-foot-6 freshman Duce Robinson, who has eight catches for 186 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown.
"He's going to be an animal," running back MarShawn Lloyd said. "Y'all don't see the plays that we see, but it's only going to get better, just from that long run that he had, he's going to get better and better. I see him doing things this year because he's such a great player and he helps the team in every way."
Mismatch up front
While the receivers could start trimming their rotation, it's the more the merrier for the defensive line and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who was told he used 55 different defensive line combinations during the first three games.
"That's the position that's gotta rotate," Grinch said. "You're asking 280-pound, 300-pound guys to go as fast as they possibly can every single rep and match a 300-pound offensive lineman over and over and over again."
Fourteen rush ends and defensive ends have tallied at least one tackle this season, led by rush end Solomon Byrd's nine tackles and two sacks. The Trojans will likely add another with redshirt senior Tyrone Taleni slated to return from a plantar fascia injury, Riley said Thursday. The increased depth has turned USC's defensive front into a new strength.
The defensive front could thrive Saturday against a depleted offensive line. Arizona State will be without starting tackles Emmit Bohle and Isaia Glass. Bohle, who started at right tackle, suffered a season-ending leg injury during ASU's loss to Oklahoma State. Max Iheanachor, a junior college transfer who didn't play football in high school, was thrust into the starting lineup against Fresno State, but he left the game with an injury and is out this week.
Scouting the Sun Devils
The injury plague spread to the quarterbacks last week as the Sun Devils turned to their fourth-string quarterback against Fresno State. Backup Trent Bourguet, who started in place of injured freshman Jaden Rashada, suffered a foot injury during the 29-0 loss and third-stringer Drew Pyne left with a groin injury. Sophomore Jacob Conover threw for 89 yards on six-of-16 passing with two interceptions. The Sun Devils committed eight turnovers during the loss, their first home shutout since 1988.
Pyne, a Notre Dame transfer, is likely to play against the Trojans, coach Kenny Dillingham told reporters Tuesday, while Bourget was doubtful. Rashada, a star recruit who earned the starting spot after preseason camp, will likely redshirt the season due to an undisclosed injury.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.