Following the Arizona State Sun Devils’ (4-4, 3-2 Pac-12) 48-17 loss to the USC Trojans (7-2, 5-1), ASU head coach Todd Graham opened off his press conference with one of football’s most cliche remarks, tipping his cap to the opponent.
“Well, I want to start off and congratulate coach [Clay] Helton and the USC Trojans,” Graham said. “They kicked our tail... Outcoached us, outplayed us.”
The Trojans had hit rock bottom entering Saturday’s contest following a 49-14 loss to Notre Dame, while embarrassed on national television.
USC had turned the ball over eight times in their last three games. They didn’t lose the football once on Saturday night. The Trojans allowed 377 rushing yards to Notre Dame. ASU had just 79.
Lastly, USC had over 600 yards of total offense, a feat the Trojans had only accomplished three times since the start of the 2015 season.
But as great as USC played, the Sun Devils hindered any chance of rising to the top of the Pac-12 South on Saturday night with a long list of issues attached — first being the penalties.
Prior to Saturday’s matchup, the Sun Devils led the nation with the fewest penalties per game, 3.14. Against USC, Arizona State had 10, pushing them back 99 yards.
“You’ve got to be smarter than that,” Graham said of Tashon Smallwood’s personal foul.
With the game still new at 7-3, USC was deep in its own territory on third-and-12 when Helton called a timeout. Unaware of the whistle, Smallwood broke through the steady USC offensive line and hit USC quarterback Sam Darnold.
“The whistle was blown,” Graham said. “You just got to see the quarterback standing there, not moving. And you’ve just got to have some awareness there.”
But the most detrimental of penalties came when safety Dasmond Tautalatasi connected head-to-head with USC receiver Tyler Vaughns on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Darnold midway through the second quarter.
The Trojans had led 28-3 at the time of Tautalatasi’s departure.
It had already been a disastrous first half, but him exiting the game for true freshman Evan Fields didn’t help. Defensively, Arizona State gave up 341 rushing yards, the most they’ve allowed to an opponent since Oct. 18, 2012 in a 43-21 loss to Oregon.
USC running back Ronald Jones had 216 rushing yards. Two of his runs were touchdowns, both for over 60 yards.
“We just gave up big play passes. We had missed tackles,” Graham said.
They also missed on third down, big time.
“You can’t play offense like that,” Graham said. “I mean we didn’t play defense very good either, but we converted one third down the entire night.”
The Sun Devils went 1-for-11 on third down on Saturday night. Because of this, ASU couldn’t extend plays, forcing the Sun Devils to just 61 plays on the night and only 25 minutes of offensive possession.
It was the least amount of plays ASU ran on offense since its 56-35 loss to rival Arizona in 2016.
“Got to play better at quarterback,” ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins said. “Comes down to third downs... It’s unacceptable, regardless of what’s going on in the game, regardless of the situation. I think I got to do my job to put us in the position to score points and win with the ball games.”
While Wilkins blamed himself for the loss, he didn’t receive much help from those directly in front and and behind him. Missing Kalen Ballage due to a virus, the Sun Devils combined for just 2.6 yards per carry on 79 yards. Wilkins was also sacked six times.
The Sun Devils rank 125th of 129 FBS teams in sacks allowed, giving up 3.57 per game.
Moving forward though, the Sun Devils have a chance to do exactly what USC did on Saturday night: bounce back.
Arizona State’s last three home contest have been against ranked opponents: No. 21 USC, then-No. 5 Washington and then-No. 24 Oregon, and the Sun Devils won two of those three contests.
Coming into town on Saturday, Nov. 4 are the Colorado Buffaloes (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) who sit 5th in the Pac-12. After a 48-24 win over California on Saturday night the Buffaloes have shown mega potential, but are definitely a much-needed nonranked break in Arizona State’s rigorous schedule.