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ASU Football: Critical mistakes haunt Sun Devils in 42-14 loss to USC

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Turnovers and spotty defense made it a long night for the Sun Devils in their Pac-12 opener.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Arizona State Sun Devils took the field against the No. 19 USC Trojans Saturday night, Sun Devil Stadium seemed like a party during warmups. Reporters, team personnel and VIP guests packed the field while speakers on the ground level blared hip-hop music to set the stage for a pivotal Pac-12 matchup.

An hour later, the USC Marching Band's famous "Tribute to Troy" fight song was often the only thing heard around the stadium.

The Sun Devils (2-2, 0-1 Pac-12) suffered a self-destruction on a comedy of errors as Arizona State yielded another disappointing performance in a 42-14 blowout loss to the Trojans (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12).

There wasn't much that could be pointed out as bright spots for the Sun Devils. On offense, Arizona State gave up four turnovers, which deviated from the "protect the ball" identity coach Todd Graham has tried to implement over the last three years. On defense, the Sun Devils gave up 459 yards to USC — 379 in the air — and struggled mightily in tackling the Trojan ballcarriers.

It was certainly an inexcusable performance, which Graham owned up to in his postgame presser.

"They were obviously the better team tonight," Graham said.

Graham said the offensive strategy was to work at a slower tempo to keep USC's offense off the field. ASU's time of possession was 32:22 compared to the Trojans' 27:38.

"Our plan was to slow the tempo down and we wanted to play about 65 plays on defense and about 80 plays on offense," Graham said. "I think we ended up playing 79 on offense and 63 on defense."

Each team's opening possessions indicated a wacky game. USC quarterback Cody Kessler connected on a 52-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, only to give the ball back to Arizona State when Kessler his first interception of the season to Jordan Simone on the Sun Devils' goal line. Demario Richard opened Arizona State's drive with a 61-yard rush, but lost a four plays later.

After this crazy sequence, the Trojans responded. The Sun Devils didn't.

It didn't take long for the Trojans to get on the board when Adoree Jackson took a reception from Kessler and burned Arizona Sate safety Jordan Simone on a misdirection to scored for a 80-yard touchdown. ASU entered USC's redzone again, but couldn't capitalize on Zane Gonzalez's missed field goal.

Simone would later apologize to the media in his postgame remarks, despite recording a team-high eight tackles.

"I gotta do better," Simone said. "I got to be a better leader out there and we just got to cover them better."

USC punted on its next two possessions, but the Trojans opened the gates on Arizona State. Steve Mitchell Jr. scored on a 27-yard pass from Kessler, followed by Smith-Schuster's 4-yard touchdown reception.

Things went going completely awry for the Sun Devils when Richard fumbled near USC's goaline, setting up Chris Wood's 94-yard return for the touchdown. After the point-after attempt, Arizona State running back De'Chavon Hayes fumbled on a kick return that led to Kessler's 10-yard touchdown pass to Smith-Schuster.

Meanwhile, the Sun Devils' next four drives after Gonzalez's missed field goal in the first quarter ended in the following order — punt, interception, another missed field goal by Gonzalez, fumble, fumble.

The Sun Devils went into halftime looking at a 35-0 deficit.

"Those back-to-back, I mean, that was a 14-point swing, and I thought if we had punched that thing in and scored, I really, really thought because we were dominating the line of scrimmage defensively that we could win the game," Graham said. "We moved the football...we're self-destructing when you're turning the football over like that."

It finally took until 1:55 left in the third quarter when Demario Richard took a 1-yard carry for a touchdown, but by then, any comeback effort seem futile. USC got on the board one last time with Kessler's 10-yard pass to Isaac Whitney, and ASU made its night slightly more honorable with Richard's 4-yard touchdown with 7:45 left in the game.

With the team still standing at .500 after the fourth game of the season, this has been a disappointing start to the season, despite Graham reiterating after the game this is still the best team he's ever coached. With a road trip set next week to UCLA, which also blew out Arizona earlier Saturday night, Graham said the only thing the Sun Devils can really do at the moment is respond.

"I remember going home and getting my butt kicked by Stanford, and [it's about] how you respond to this," Graham said. "If this is the best team that we've had, then we're going to respond and go and figure out a way to go win next week."

Other notes:

D.J. Foster recorded his 44th straight game with at least one reception, which tied John Jefferson's school record and currently stands as the longest active streak in the FBS. He also became just the fourth player in NCAA history to record 2,000-plus receiving and rushing yards.