TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- The impressive end was only outdone by the horrible beginning.
After consecutive losses and a bye week, Arizona State aimed to get their season back on track during Saturday's matchup against a reeling USC team.
Instead, a nightmarish first quarter put the Sun Devils in a 28-7 hole from which they never recovered.
“We stumbled around and fumbled around, and all of a sudden we’re playing from a deficit," said ASU head coach Herm Edwards.
To the Sun Devils' credit, they responded well over the final three quarters.
With better defensive play and an offense led by true freshman quarterback Joey Yellen, who made his first career start, ASU slowly closed the gap. A final drive had a chance to steal a last-minute victory, but a tipped pass was intercepted to end the comeback bid.
The loss drops ASU to 5-4 overall and 2-4 in Pac-12 play. A once promising season has derailed, in large part to a rash of costly mistakes committed by the Sun Devils. With three games left in the season, there's still time to finish the year on positive note.
“Right now, we’re not a very good football team," Edwards said. "We’re a team that plays against us. We gotta stop doing that. Once we figure that out, we’ll win a game again.”
“We gotta stop doing this to ourselves.”
Arizona State's second bye week of the season seemed to come at the right time.
Disappointing losses to Utah and UCLA dropped Arizona State from the Top 25, and the break offered an opportunity to heal up and refocus for the season's homestretch.
Those efforts were dealt a signifcant setback when starting quarterback Jayden Daniels, who has excelled as a true freshman, was sidelined due to a knee injury. That thrust fellow true freshman Joey Yellen into the starting lineup against a USC defense that was returning several key players from injuries.
But early on, it was not just the Sun Devil offense that was a problem.
Over the first two USC drives, true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, a product of Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, completed all 11 of his passes, including a pair of touchdowns to stake the Trojans to a 14-0 lead.
“You look up at the clock and it’s 7-0. Then it’s 14-0," Edwards said. "Like, really? We’re doing this again?”
ASU's offense were held in check, but a 97-yard kickoff return by Brandon Aiyuk set up a five-yard Yellen touchdown pass to Kyle Williams.
USC had a strong answer.
Slovis connecetd with Kenan Christon on a 58-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 21-7, but that was merely prelude to the quarter's killshot. Following a good punt from ASU's Michael Turk, USC faced a third-and-7 from their five-yard line. Slovis dropped back and hit Amon-Ra St. Brown with a pass through three ASU defenders that St. Brown took the distance.
“I had a good option on that play, either way I would have went," Slovis said. "I worked towards (Michael) Pittman, the safety widened, and Amon (Ra St. Brown) ran by the middle safety."
In the recent stretch of costly mistakes by ASU, this was among the more damaging.
After one quarter, USC lead 28-7 and held a 315 to 1 edge in yardage. Yes, one yard.
The rout could have been on, but the Sun Devil sideline maintained their composure.
“I don’t think there was ever any panic," Yellen said. "(USC) got off to a hot start, but I thought the defense responded really well."
ASU's defense kept the Trojans in check for the remainder of the half, and Yellen hit Frank Darby for a 62-yard touchdown to make it a 28-13 game at the half.
“Every time he came off, I told him, ‘Just keep smiling. You’re doing great,'" Edwards said of Yellen. "He was put in a tough spot.”
On the opening drive of the third quarter, Yellen led the Sun Devils on another scoring drive, capped by a two-yard touchdown pass to Aiyuk.
“They always got to the right spot, ran really good routes, and made some big plays," said Yellen of Aiyuk and Darby.
The defense continued to stifle USC, holding them to just a field goal as Slovis left the game in the third quarter with a knee injury.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Yellen threw his fourth touchdown pass of the day, a 15-yard dart to Darby.
"Joey came out and did an outstanding job, in my opinion," Darby said. "He was feeding everybody.”
A two-point conversion failed, but ASU had closed the gap to 31-26 with 8:54 left.
With momentum fully on their side, the Sun Devils appeared to take the lead on the second play of the ensuing USC drive. Matt Fink's pass was intercepted by Khaylan Kearse-Thomas and returned 22 yards for a touchdown.
However, ASU was flagged for holding and the play was negated. It was another devastating self-inflicted error.
“The players have to stop it," said Edwards of his team's mistakes. "There’s no magical call. You gotta stop it, bottom line. They know it, and we gotta help them do it.”
The teams traded punts until ASU took over at their 10-yard line with 3:29 to go. In the face of a strong USC pass rush, Yellen moved the Sun Devils down the field before mistakes struck again. From the USC 40, a pass was dropped by tight end Tommy Hudson that likely would have gone deep into Trojan territory.
“We keep shooting ourselves in the foot," Darby said.
Two plays later, Yellen's pass was tipped and intercepted by Christian Rector.
After the game, the emotional toll was evident on the faces of the Sun Devil players.
“The frustration is we’re losing to teams we’re better than," Aiyuk said. "We’re better than that team out there. We’re better than the last few teams we’ve lost to.”
“We worked so hard for two weeks,” Darby said. “We were putting the work in, and we fall short again.”
The Critical Moment
It was symbolic of the way things have gone for ASU over their losing streak: One step forward, two steps back.
Or in this case, 95 yards back.
Turk's excellent punt had USC pinned deep in their own zone, and on a third-and-7, the defense was primed to get off the field and give the Sun Devil offense great field position.
Instead, Slovis' pass went by three Sun Devils and St. Brown was off to the races.
KEDIME SLOVIS IS TEARING THE SUN DEVILS TO SHREDSFind me a better pass this season in CFB pic.twitter.com/g4L1daERSW— Barstool SC (@BarstoolSC) November 9, 2019
"On the big one, you couldn’t have a better coverage call," Edwards said. "It was Tampa 2. You got a safety that’s supposed to be running down the middle with the guy, and you got two half players, and nobody plays the ball.”
It's a matter of execution, and it's an area that continues to hinder the Sun Devils.
Losing a starting quarterback to injury is a major blow to any team. Replacing him with a player who's never played at the collegiate level just adds to the difficulty, but it was the hand ASU was dealt.
“We were all nervous at first, because Joey had not taken that many reps in practice," Darby said. "But when we found out he was going, it’s next man up."
First learning that he'd likely start on Tuesday, Yellen responded with a strong showing.
"I felt like they prepared me well," Yellen said. "A lot of the reads were there. A couple throws I want back for sure. I felt like we had a good plan going into this, and we executed it for the most part.”
In his first college game, he completed 28 of 44 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns.
“For a kid that has never played, to go in and play against a really talented defense and score four touchdowns says a lot about his mindset and how he’s prepared himself to play," Edwards said.
Yellen showed struggles that are to be expected with a young quarterback, but he also displayed a deft downfield passing touch and good pocket awareness. His performance was one that should give ASU confidence if Daniels continues to be sidelined.
“Offensively, we felt like we could move the ball, and we were able to move the ball with a kid that had never played," Edwards said.
Yellen distribute the ball well to his targets. Kyle Williams caught eight passes for 60 yards and a score, Darby had three grabs for 86 yards and two touchdowns, and Aiyuk had five for 51 and another score. Running back Eno Benjamin added seven receptions as a checkdown option.
But drops continue to plague the team, especially in key situations.
“We dropped a lot of balls on that last drives," Edwards said. "You can’t drop those passes in big games and big moments.”
The running game was ineffective. Benjamin was held to 52 yards on 20 carries, and he lost a fumble in the second quarter.
All eyes will be on Daniels and his status for next week, but the final three quarters showed that a Yellen-led offense can keep the team competitive.
Over the last two games, ASU has been outscored 42-14 in the first quarter.
“We didn’t come out ready at all,” said safety Evan Fields. “We came out letting them take the fight to us. That’s something we can’t do. We have to be aggressive on defense. We can’t play quarters of the game, we have to play the full game.”
Early on, ASU had no answer for the USC offense and their immensely talented wide receivers. Slovis' 297 yards passing in the first quarter made some history.
No one has thrown for more yards in a quarter in CFB in at least 15 years. https://t.co/ROyQbrhPpd— Kyle Bonagura (@BonaguraESPN) November 9, 2019
But once the defense got through the quarter, they settled down. After allowing 315 yards and 12.1 yards per play in the opening frame, ASU gave up 232 yards and just 4.9. Most importantly, the Sun Devils gave up just a single field goal over the final three quarters.
While the improvement was promising, the early struggles were damning.
“You can’t let it occur," Edwards said, "and it occurred again.”
The Big Picture
Edwards and his staff have not been shy about the scope and expected struggles of the program's rebuild. With such a heavy reliance on youth, there will be growing pains.
“It’s a learning experience for all of them, and we all go through it," Edwards said. "When you have that many guys playing, there’s errors.”
Over the first half of the season, the Sun Devils were able to limit or overcome them. The last three games, have been a different story.
“I felt like we were ready for this game, and I felt like we pushed every day for it," Darby said. "It was like one of those UCLA games, and we didn't expect for them to do that.”
"Once we decide to stop beating ourselves, we’ll win a football game again," Edwards said. "A lot of this was self-inflicted fouls, or dropped balls, or missed gap control, or not playing the coverage correctly.”
As disheartening as the mistakes have been, the ability to rally back from them, especially in Saturday's game, is encouraging. The potential of the young players has been able to shine through.
The fast start to the season raised expectations, and heightened the disappointment of the recent struggles. While this season can still become an important springboard to the 2020 and 2021 seasons, these young Sun Devils will need to ensure the lessons from nights like Saturday sink in.
“They gotta learn," said Edwards. "Once they learn, we’re going to be a pretty good football team.”
The Next Step
ASU will head to Corvallis, Oregon for the final road trip of the regular season. On Saturday, they'll face an improving Oregon State team coming off a home loss to Washington. The Beavers feature an explosive offense, and at 4-5, they'll be gunning to finish strong and make a bowl game for the first time since 2013.
The Extra Points
- Yellen broke Daniels' school record for most passing yards in the first game of a career.
- Williams has caught a pass in 37 consecutive games, the fourth-longest streak in ASU history.
- Benjamin went over 2,500 career rushing yards.