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ASU Football: Familiar ghosts doom Sun Devils against USC

Pourous tackling continues to be at the root of the ASU defense’s struggles.

Arizona State v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES - Starting slow, missing tackles, giving up big plays -- these problems have existed for weeks.

Early in the game, it seemed like Arizona State had figured out how to remedy its nagging issues. Instead, those issues were exposed further in its 41-20 loss to the USC Trojans.

ASU actually looked like it had a quick start in the works on its first drive. The Sun Devils marched down the field and had four first downs on nine plays, but that was about the only bright spot on that side of the ball. Wilkins’ 8 of 11 start was soon diluted when he completed just five of his next 13 attempts for 43 yards.

Other than Zane Gonzalez converting a couple of field goals to acquire the Pac-12 record, ASU’s offense did a whole lot of nothing. The Sun Devils struggled to get their bread-and-butter going, and that resulted in several second- and third-and-longs. USC limited ASU’s rushing attack to 75 yards on 33 carries (2.3 per carry).

“We didn’t run the ball,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “(USC) shut the run down. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They were the better team tonight.”

In fact, after Gonzalez’ second field goal, the Sun Devils gained just 58 total yards in the second and third quarters.

Brady White wasn’t exactly spectacular in his impromptu debut (6 of 13 for 80 yards and a touchdown), but to place much if any blame on the redshirt freshman seems unfair given how drastically the Sun Devils were outplayed.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t really able to click on offense,” White said.

The Sun Devils defense had a promising start as well. Defensive end JoJo Wicker got off to a quick start with two early tackles for loss in the first quarter. As a whole, ASU’s defensive line had its way with USC on the Trojans’ first drive, stuffing several runs, including a fourth-down conversion attempt linebacker Salamo Fiso quickly ended.

However, USC adjusted, getting the ball out of quarterback Sam Darnold’s hands much quicker. To say ASU struggled to manage the quick-fire attack from USC would be an understatement.

“It’s just the little things,” ASU defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said. “We just have to disciplined in our assignments... As a defense, and as individuals, we go to put in the work to get better.”

When ASU did minorly contain USC’s offense, it failed to close out the possession with a fundamental tackle. Several undisciplined attempts led to even bigger plays for USC, and no Trojan took advantage of that more than wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who went for seven catches, 123 yards and three touchdowns.

“We do tackling drills every day at practice,” Smallwood said. “Coaches put emphasis on it every day. As individuals, we don’t need to just do it to do it. We need to do it to apply it.”

Instability at the bandit safety position also came about. At different points in the game, Laiu Moeakiola, Chad Adams, James Johnson and J’Marcus Rhodes all tried their hand at the spot, but USC continuously had its way up the middle of the field and over the top. Across the defense, blown assignments and misread plays led to several easy touchdowns for the Trojans.

What was also apparent was USC’s decision to focus its offensive efforts away from ASU boundary cornerback Kareem Orr. The Trojans focused plenty on the field-side of things where cornerbacks De’Chavon Hayes and Bryson Echols struggled to contain USC’s dynamic wideouts, putting them into isolated situations that USC won nearly every time.

In short, USC didn’t expose anything ASU fans weren’t already concerned about. Of course, nobody expects exposure to result in a 21-point blowout, but such was the case.

“We didn’t win any phase tonight,” Graham said. “I take ownership, and we played poorly.”