On the first play of Arizona State’s (4-4, 3-2 Pac-12) crucial Pac-12 South matchup against USC (7-2, 5-1) Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium, Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold stepped back into the pocket and was sacked by D.J. Calhoun.
It was a familiar sequence for a defensive unit that emerged as a dominant force the last two weeks, holding opponents to less than 13 points in back to back matchups.
The rest of the night, however, reminded the program of everything it had been on the defensive side of the ball for the last two years: poor tacklers, prone to giving up the big play and at times, full of mental mishaps.
A key component of the Sun Devils’ defensive collapse was their third down defense. ASU allowed the Trojans to convert 7 of 15 attempts, including multiple from ten yards and beyond.
“There was about four in the first quarter and a half, you gotta get off the field,” Head Coach Todd Graham said following Saturday’s loss. “We’ve gotten off the field... they threw an out-cut, a five yard out cut for a touchdown, we missed the tackle. We haven’t done that.”
That sentiment was echoed by first-year defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.
“I thought this was the first game in a while that we really tackled poorly,” Graham said. “When you get frustrated you reach instead of being fluent in the tackle.”
Arizona State’s offense was far less successful on third down — one for 12 — but the defense gave up so many big plays it didn’t seem to matter.
USC tailback Ronald Jones ran for 216 yards on 18 carries and added two scores of 64-plus yards on the ground. It wasn’t the first time the Sun Devils had allowed a huge performance from an opposing running back, and following the loss Bennett explained the unique way Jones exploited the ASU defense.
“What (Jones) does is he shuts in, then he creases out,” Bennett said. “And you’ve got to stay true to your fit. If you remember his last touchdown run everybody thought he was stopped.”
Arizona State struggled to bring opposing players down to the turf, allowed consistent big plays that crippled any momentum it could garner and succumbed to mental errors that proved to be the nail in the coffin.
The Sun Devils fell behind early and never seemed to play with the same intensity it displayed during the previous two victories. Senior linebacker DJ Calhoun admitted that some of it had to do with the attitude the Trojans came out with and how ASU responded.
“Coach Graham told us when they came out they were going to be talking,” senior linebacker DJ Calhoun said. “But some of us bought into which was poor of us. That was lacking on our character, but we have to put that in the past and move on.”
Bennett noticed a specific play — the third of the game — in which redshirt junior Kobe Williams seemed disoriented.
“It was third and twelve, I mean that’s a given,” Bennett said of his cornerback, a first-year starter. “He got out of wack, I don’t know if it’s because he’s from California but I didn’t see the confidence that he’s had.”
Whether it was the high expectations, over-confidence or just a complete mismatch in terms of skill level at certain positions, the Sun Devils’s seemingly-improved defense was thoroughly embarrassed by the Trojans.
In seasons past, a result like the one Saturday night was just a blip on the radar, an eerily-similar rendition of a performance witnessed countless times before.
But after creating an opportunity to reclaim the divisional title that has eluded them since 2013, the Sun Devils squandered it all — leaving many to wonder how ASU will take the next step and avoid the very habits that have kept them from doing so for over two and a half years.