Khaylan Kearse-Thomas strutted into the end zone. The Sun Devils, who at one point were on life support, had made a full recovery. Sun Devil Stadium’s sold out crowd rocked celebrating the pick six that had finally erased the 21-point deficit.
It was all a mirage.
A flag wiped away the score. A self-inflicted wound stayed the theme throughout Arizona State’s (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) now three-game skid.
“I told them this. Once we decide to stop beating ourselves, we’ll win a football game again,” head coach Herm Edwards said. “Because a lot of this was just self inflicting fouls.”
The box score will read USC (6-3, 5-2) victors 31-26 over the Sun Devils. But as Edwards alluded to, Arizona State did itself no favors on Saturday.
Brandon Aiyuk’s face read frustration and disappointment. He vocalized it too.
“We’re losing to teams that we’re better than,” Aiyuk said. “We’re better than that team out there. We’re better than the last few teams we’ve lost to. That’s where most of the frustration is coming from.”
And it’s not as if Aiyuk’s individual stat line created this built up dissatisfaction. Five catches, 51 yards and a score is a solid day for himself. As a leader of the team though, he’d trade those stats in for a catch less day if that meant the Sun Devils got over the hump they’re currently in.
To back Aiyuk’s statement, the Sun Devils looked and played as the better team for three quarters. However, they built a mountain too tall to climb after a dismal first quarter performance.
The offense, led by Joey Yellen in place of an injured Jayden Daniels, netted a single yard after 15 minutes. On the other side, the defense allowed 28 points and made mental mistakes.
The next three quarters, the Sun Devils only allowed three points seemingly presenting a chance at the end.
“Just played the coverage correctly,” Edwards said.
Arizona State no longer lost in coverage Kenan Christon as Kedon Slovis extended a play into a 58-yard touchdown. They made plays on the ball instead of watching Amon-Ra St. Brown race toward the end zone after three Sun Devils were near him when he made the catch.
The talent and execution has been there, just not for 60 minutes.
“We didn’t come out ready at all,” Tillman safety Evan Fields said. “That’s the second week that’s happened too. We came out flat. We came out letting them take the fight to us. That’s just something we can’t do, we have to come out and be the aggressor. We can’t play quarters, we have to play the full game.”
Fields turned it up later to up spark the comeback attempt. He picked off Slovis and recovered a fumble. And the players never felt out of it.
Yellen warmed up after a two-for-six start. After trying it multiple times he finally connected on a deep ball. He hit Frank Darby in stride for the 62-yard score. That pass started a streak of 12 straight completions for the true freshman.
The former four-star recruit said he had a good idea on the Tuesday leading into the game that he’d be starting for Daniels. His 28-for-44, 292 yards and four touchdown day was impressive considering the circumstances.
“I got the full week to prepare,” Yellen said. “I felt like they prepared me well. A lot of the reads were there. A couple throws I want to have back for sure. I felt like we had a good plan going into this and executed them for the most part.”
Yellen’s final throw, an interception on a spectacular play by Christian Rector to hammer the final nail in the Sun Devils’ coffin, might leave a sour taste but he played well.
Offensive coordinator Rob Likens said he’d be surprised if Daniels didn’t play next week at Oregon State.
Although, it appears quarterback is the least of the Sun Devils worries. Penalties, dropped balls and missed assignments on defense are.
But following three games of the same things, the fix doesn’t appear easy.
“It’s just a little hump, I feel like we’re stuck right now,” Darby said. “We just really need to get over the hump. I don’t know. It’s just something we need to fix.”