LOS ANGELES (3TV/CBS 5) -- If 2020 has reinforced anything, it's that anything is possible and nothing is safe.
Not even 13-point leads with under three minutes left.
Through a series of wild plays, Arizona State saw a late lead disappear in a heartbreaking 28-27 loss to No. 20 USC.
“The thing I’ve learned about college football is that they can score at any moment," said ASU head coach Herm Edwards. "We had an opportunity to get off the field a couple of times, and we didn’t do it.”
In a season-opening battle between two of the top teams in the Pac-12 South, the Sun Devils used a strong ground game and an opportunistic defense to jump to a 27-14 lead late in the fourth quarter.
USC responded with a tipped ball touchdown on a fourth down pass, and followed that up with a successful onside kick to set up the go-ahead score to drop ASU to 0-1 on the season.
“We didn’t finish the game.”
After months of waiting, the 2020 Pac-12 season got underway with a 9 a.m. local kickoff between Arizona State and South division favorite USC.
The early start may have contributed a bit to a sloppy start.
After ASU opened with a field goal on the first drive, USC punted, only to get the ball right back on a muff by returner Jack Jones. The Trojans then fumbled the ball right back to the Sun Devils at the goal line.
The Trojan offense finally got on track on their following drive. A 24-yard Kedon Slovis scramble on third-and-17 extended the drive early, which was capped by a two-yard Stephen Carr touchdown run to give USC a 7-3 lead.
ASU then stuffed the Trojans on a fourth-down run on USC's next possession. Running back Rachaad White made a 19-yard reception to get into Trojan territory, which set up freshman DeaMonte Trayanum's 25-yard touchdown run.
“I was pleasantly surprised, but not really in the fact that when we recruited them, if we gave them the opportunity to run the football, that they would play well," Edwards said of his running backs.
The lead was short-lived, as Slovis led USC on a 13-play, 80-yard drive ended with Markese Stepp's touchdown run.
Now trailing, ASU leaned on their new backs.
After two Trayanum runs, quarterback Jayden Daniels threw a swing pass to White, who juked a few defenders over the course of his 55-yard touchdown reception.
“Rachaad is a heck of an athlete, and getting him in space, and our guys did a good job blocking on it," ASU OC Zak Hill said. "He made some guys miss and took it all the way.”
A Merlin Robertson interception ended a USC drive late in the second quarter, and ASU held a 17-14 lead at halftime.
In the locker room, the Sun Devils aimed to continue feeding their dynamic backs.
“At halftime, we talked about running the ball effectively, and that was the gameplan moving forward," Hill said. "We felt like we had an edge there with them.”
A pair of punts opened the second half, but ASU's defense came up big with another turnover, as Chase Lucas forced a fumble that was recovered by Tyler Johnson. Daniels then made a trio of big plays with his legs, part of his 111 yard rushing on the day, to get the ball to the USC 17. Trayanum then took it the rest of the way on the next play to extend ASU's lead to 24-14.
“It’s like a thunder and lightning," Daniels said of Trayanum and White. "They did a great job running the ball.”
USC threatened again driving to the ASU 6-yard line to set up a fourth-and-1. They opted to go for it, but Robertson made a tackle off the edge to end the threat, one of three failed fourth down tries by USC on the day.
The Sun Devils rode the legs of White and Trayanum, who combined for 44 yards on the drive, to get into range for Cristian Zendejas to make his second field goal of the day.
“They knew it was our plan to run it, but we were still effective in the run game even with them coming down at times," said Hill.
Trailing 27-14 with time ticking away, the Trojans put together another long drive into ASU territory. Facing another fourth-and-1, Stepp picked up eight yards but fumbled. Robertson recovered and ASU was in prime position to close out the upset.
White picked up 20 yards on the first play, but the USC defense was able to stiffen and force a punt.
“It was a choppy game at the end," Hill said. "We didn’t finish the way we wanted to in the run game. We were in a good spot but just lost momentum.”
Slovis got the Trojans to the ASU 26, where they faced a do-or-die fourth-and-13. On the play, Slovis fired a pass to the corner of the endzone. USC receiver Joshua Jackson was covered by two ASU defenders, but he managed to tip the ball in the air enough to allow Bru McCoy to make the touchdown grab.
“You gotta make the plays," Edwards said. "It wasn’t like we weren’t in position to make the play, we just have to make them when they present themselves.”
With 2:52 left, the Trojans execute a successful onside kick. Six plays later, they faced another fourth down, and again, Slovis converted with an accurate touchdown pass to Drake London.
“(ASU safety Kejuan) Markham was in really good shape, he just went for it with the wrong hand," Edwards said. "He went for it with the right hand instead of the left hand. It was a great throw.”
“At the end of the game, we can’t lose focus like that and lose our edge we had," ASU safety Evan Fields said.
Suddenly trailing by one with just 1:20 left, Daniels hit Geordon Porter for 18 yards on the first play. But an apparent completion was reversed upon review, and Daniels' next three passes were incomplete to end the comeback bid.
“We had that first completion, had things rolling, then all of a sudden, they’re reviewing a play two plays earlier," Hill said. "It took us out of some momentum. We tried to recover from there but couldn’t”
The Critical Moment
They had them right were they wanted them. Facing a fourth-and-long, the Sun Devil defense that had played such a strong game to that point was poised to close out the game.
They had two defenders draped over the receiver, but a fortunate tip of the ball started the sequence that doomed the Devils on Saturday.
“We had some golden opportunities to make plays defensively, but we did not do that," Edwards said.
To that point, ASU's defense, playing it's first game under co-coordinators Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce, had risen to the occasion in the second half, recovering two fumbles, forcing a punt, and getting a turnover on downs.
But that fluky tip proved to be a something that threw them off, and they were unable to recover.
“We had some golden opportunities to make plays defensively, but we did not do that," Edwards said.
In the first game under Hill's scheme, ASU put together an uneven performance.
The running game was strong, putting together 258 yards, which is the most by the Devils since November of 2018 against UCLA.
Daniels (111 yards), Trayanum (84), and White (76) showed they can all hurt defenses in different ways. Trayanum showed his power but also his elusiveness, while White displayed his shiftiness and speed. Saturday was the first NCAA game for both backs, and they should only get stronger.
“I was really proud of the backs," Hill said. "I thought they ran hard. I thought they ran physical.”
The passing game was another matter. Daniels only completed 11 of his 23 throws for 134 yards. The offensive line struggled all game long in pass protection, with the pressure forcing errant throws or scrambles. But Daniels also was not sharp on a number of his passes.
One factor was the early loss of senior Frank Darby, the team's top receiver. He caught one pass for two yards before an abdomen injury sidelined him for the game. Without Darby, the team was forced to rely on a number of inexperienced players like true freshmen LV Bunkley-Shelton (four catches, 28 yards, one lost fumble), Johnny Wilson (one swing pass for no gain along with a few drops).
“Them being young is not an excuse, we just have to execute at the end of the day," Daniels said. "It’s a next-man-up mentality. Without Frank, we didn’t really have any experience as a receiver group. You can’t rely on Frank.”
It appeared that the inexperience factored into some miscommunication on throws as the game went on.
“It’s all about experience and those guys feeling comfortable in games," Hill said. "It’s one thing to do it during practice or a scrimmage and another thing when everyone is watching.”
The offensive line struggled to protect Daniels, and lost right guard Henry Hattis due to injury. He was replaced by sophomore LaDarius Henderson, last year's starter at left tackle.
As the young receivers develop, Daniels should be able to rebound into better form, and the ground game is a promising sign moving forward.
For 57 minutes, they were great. Unfortunately for them, games run 60 minutes.
Like the offense, the defense was getting their first game action in a new system, a 4-3 base after two years in a 3-3-5. There were plenty of signs of rough edges to smooth out, but for the bulk of the game, they were stout.
The defensive line, the biggest question mark on the team heading into the year, played well. Jermayne Lole (six tackles, 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and two passes deflected) and D.J Davidson were strong in the middle, while ends Tyler Johnson (five tackles, sack, two TFL) and Michael Matus (four tackles, 0.5 sacks) made sure Slovis never got too comfortable.
Perhaps the most promising sign was the play of junior linebacker Merlin Robertson. After a down sophomore year, Robertson made plays all over the field on Saturday and filled up the stat sheet: 10 tackles, an interception, a tackle for loss, and a fumble recovery.
The secondary faced a formindable test in facing the USC passing attack, and outside of the final two drives, played pretty well. Safety DeAndre Pierce, making the start over two-year starter Aashari Crosswell, made nine tackles and recovered a fumble. The other starting safety, Evan Fields, had a huge game, making 17 tackles and forcing two fumbles.
All told, it was a solid game...except for some wild happenings at the end. But the Win-Loss column only sees the final score, not how it happeed.
“Our scheme was good. Our gameplan was great," Fields said. "I think it comes down to executing and making plays at the end of the game. We got to keep our heads up and come back harder.”
The Trojans are likely the best offense ASU is set to face in the abbreviate 2020 season, and Saturday's showing should provide plenty of confidence as well as plenty of adjustments to make.
The Big Picture
It was a gut punch. There's no way around that.
In this weird and shortened season, losing to USC could ultimately prevent ASU from winning the South. But as the debut of new offensive and defensive schemes against a Top 25, it should provide ASU and their fans with optimism.
“I told our football team that we have to grow from this moment," Edwards said. “We’re going to grow from this, put it behind us, and be ready to play next week.”
USC is likely the toughest opponent ASU will face during this seven-game season. If the offense can figure out the passing game and build upon the strength on the ground, they should be able to score enough to win. With the youth across the unit, becoming comfortable and proficient in the scheme now can go a long way into the next full season in 2021.
“We’re going to look back at this game and see a lot of things we left out on the field, a lot of things we wish we would have gotten to," Hill said.
The defense showed signs that it could become one of the very best in the country sooner rather than later.
But for now, ASU is 0-1 with six to go, but as 2020 has shown, no games on the schedule is safe. With a disappointing loss behind them, the Sun Devils know what they must do now.
“We just have to win out," Daniels said.
The Next Step
This could be tricky. ASU is scheduled to host Cal on Nov. 14, but the Golden Bears were forced to cancel their season opener against Washington due to a positive COVID-19 test and contact tracing.
The City of Berkeley's quarantine policy could result in Cal being unable to make the game.
The Extra Points
- Jayden Daniels registered the fifth 100-yard rushing game by a Sun Devil quarterback.
- DeaMonte Trayanum is the first ASU freshman to rush for two touchdowns in his debut since George Montgomery against Baylor in 1990.
- Cristian Zendejas has made 13 consecutive field goals.