Head coach Todd Graham often repeats four words he says exemplifies the Arizona State Sun Devils: “character, smart, discipline, tough.” Saturday in Tempe, his team threw the third one out the window.
As part of a 48-17 loss to the No. 21 USC Trojans, the Sun Devils were hit with 10 accepted penalties for 99 yards, the most in Graham’s tenure in both categories.
“That’s something we shouldn’t have done, we’re way better than that,” senior linebacker DJ Calhoun said. “That was lacking on our character. But we just have to put that in the past and move on.”
In fact, this is the first time a Graham-coached team was penalized 10-plus times in a game since the 2010 Tulsa Golden Hurricanes were flagged 12 times for 133 yards at Notre Dame.
But what upset Graham the most were the four personal fouls called against ASU.
“That’s the first in my career,” Graham said. “We were doing things that were uncharacteristic of us.”
The “fun” started on USC’s fourth drive of the game. Facing third-and-12 with the play clock running out, the Trojans called timeout, but senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood burst through the line and hit redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, triggering a 15-yard late hit flag and giving USC a first down.
Smallwood told defensive coordinator Phil Bennett he was pushed into Darnold, which is why he was so angry with the call.
On the next play from scrimmage, Smallwood was flagged again, this time for illegal hands to the face, another 15-yarder that moved the Trojans across midfield to the ASU 42-yard line.
Two plays later, Darnold found redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns for a touchdown to extend the Trojan lead to 14-3 and suck any momentum from ASU’s sideline.
Smallwood picked up another late, when the game was all but over, but that doesn’t matter to defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.
“I love Tashon,” Bennett said. “But I’ve never had anybody have three personal fouls, and they were at crucial times.”
But it wasn’t just Smallwood. Senior safety Das Tautalatasi was flagged for targeting on Darnold’s second touchdown pass to Vaughns, kicking him out for the remainder of the game.
With Tautalatasi gone, freshman safety Evan Fields took his place and made some rookie mistakes, specifically on junior running back Ronald Jones’s third quarter touchdown run.
On the play, Jones was stopped close to the line of scrimmage, but Fields, according to Bennett, did not play the body well enough, allowing the big gain and a score to put the Sun Devils away for good.
“Evan came in, was feeling his way,” Bennett said. “He’s going to be a good player. It’s a temporary setback for us.”
This performance comes on the heels of two of the best back-to-back defensive games of the Graham era against then-No. 5 Washington and Utah, making it all the more frustrating for players, coaches and fans.
In those two victories, ASU totaled three accepted penalties for 30 total yards, making sure their opponents were the ones who beat them. But tonight, it’s hard to say that ASU didn’t, at least in part, beat themselves.