Old habits return in ASU's disheartening Homecoming loss to No. 21 USC

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ASU WR Kyle Williams catches a touchdown against No. 21 USC (Photo: Sun Devil Athletics) ASU WR Kyle Williams catches a touchdown against No. 21 USC (Photo: Sun Devil Athletics)

Following a stunning two-week stretch that saw them turn their season around, Arizona State returned to Tempe for their Homecoming game on Saturday night.

Unfortunately, along with Sun Devils past and present, old demons also made their way back to Sun Devils Stadium.

ASU’s defense was gashed early and often, the Sun Devil offense was held in check, and a record number of penalties were committed in a disheartening 48-17 loss to No. 21 USC.

“We just didn’t show up to play,” said ASU head coach Todd Graham.

Saturday’s game carried with it significant stakes, as the winner would—at worst—hold a share of the Pac-12 South division lead and control their destiny in the title hunt. With the Trojans coming off a 49-14 loss to Notre Dame and ASU riding high off their two-game winning streak, the Sun Devils had a chance to take a major step forward

Instead, they reverted back to their former selves.

“We probably got too high over our head,” said ASU linebacker D.J. Calhoun. “We prepared ourselves. A couple of us didn’t come ready to play today. You win together, and you lose together.”

The Sun Devil defense bore the brunt of Saturday’s failures, a development all the more disappointing given their recent surge. They held Washington and Utah to al combined 495 yards but gave up 607 to the Trojans. After largely reversing a two-season trend of giving up big plays, the Trojans struck for gains of 32, 37, 39, 42, 64, and 67 yards.

“We just gave up big plays,” Graham said. “Everything was big plays”

Two of those—a 32-yard reception by Deontay Burnett and a 42-yards catch by Tyler Vaughns—went for scores as USC jumped out to a 14-3 first-quarter lead. Just 36 seconds into the second quarter, Ronald Jones ran for a 67-yard touchdown, part of a 216-yard effort on the night for the junior tailback.

“We had great offensive line play up front with receivers taking away the corners and safeties for me,” Jones said. “So just splitting it, and it comes out to a race.”

USC quarterback Sam Darnold would throw his third touchdown of the first half, a 19-yard connection with Vaughns, midway through the second quarter as part of what appeared to be a 31-3 halftime lead for the Trojans. But there was one weird twist left.

To embody the it was that kind of night feel for ASU, their primary offensive highlight in the half came with great difficulty and scrutiny.

On the final play of the half, quarterback Manny Wilkins threw a Hail Mary from the USC 47-yard line. The ball was tipped in the endzone, where ASU's Kyle Williams made a diving catch. However, officials ruled that the ball at the time of his catch was just outside the endzone. With the half evidently over, both teams went into the locker rooms.

The officials did not, as they remained as the play went under replay review. After several minutes, the ruling was reversed and ASU was awarded a touchdown.

The Sun Devils had a pulse. Briefly.

ASU would open the second half with an impressive 11-play drive that went 75 yards and was capped by a one-yard Wilkins’ touchdown run to close the gap to 31-17.

But on the third play of USC's ensuing drive, Jones would score on a 64-yard run, effectively putting the game away.

“I thought they really controlled the line of scrimmage,” said USC head coach Clay Helton. “When you have 300 yards rushing it makes it easier for a quarterback and the group of wide-outs to get open.”

Meanwhile, the Sun Devils were unable to mount any effective offense. Following Jones’ second touchdown run, ASU gained just 85 yards over the final quarter and a half, including just 13 in the fourth quarter. In the game, ASU converted just one of 12 third down opportunities.

“I have to play better at quarterback,” said Wilkins, who completed 17 of his 29 throws for 259 yards. “It’s unacceptable regardless of what’s going on in the game, regardless of the situation. I think I have to do my job to put us in the position to score points and win with the ball games.”

Following the game, Wilkins put a lot of the blame on himself, but the collapse was a team effort, from players to coaches.

“We obviously did not get our guys prepared the way we needed to, and that's our responsibility,” Graham said. “We did not play well.”

ASU also committed 10 penalties for 99 yards. Both figures represent the highest marks ASU has had since Graham was hired in 2012.

"That’s something we shouldn’t have done, we’re way better than that," Calhoun said. "Coach Graham told us when they came out they were going to be talking and everything, but some of us bought into it which was wrong of us. That was lacking on our character. But we just have to put that in the past and move on."

Arizona State will not be able to sulk for long after this defeat. In addition to the on-field corrections, they must also rediscover the edge that helped them knock off the nation’s fifth-ranked team and keyed a critical divisional road win.

“We have a good team. We're the same team that beat Washington and Utah,” Graham said. “In this conference, you have to bring it every week.”

Another stern test awaits next Saturday night. Now 4-4 overall and 3-2 in Pac-12 play, ASU will host a Colorado team fresh off a win over California and just one victory away from bowl eligibility.

A win gets the Sun Devils back on track for a middle-tier bowl game. A loss reignites the questions that had clouded the future direction of the program and its head coach.

Color Graham optimistic.

“We're going to bounce back,” said Graham. “We've got a good Colorado team, and we have a lot to play for.”

How they'll play for it remains to be seen.

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