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ASU Football: Sun Devils fall flat in second half, lose 42-25 to USC

It looked good for a second

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

For a brief moment, it looked like Arizona State (1-4, 0-2 Pac-12) belonged with USC (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12).

Interim head coach Shaun Aguano’s Sun Devils scored on each of its first-half drives, minus a kneel-down with seconds remaining in the half, for the first time all year. On paper in the first half, ASU did everything right in the areas where they had previously struggled so badly. They didn’t punt. Emory Jones matched Heisman-candidate Caleb Williams stride-for-stride. They won the penalty (USC 40 yards to ASU’s 29) and time-of-possession battles in the first half.

Then, the lactic acid built up in their muscles. The second half was a different game, and ASU lost 42-25 to the Trojans at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

It looked like quarterback Emory Jones left behind last week’s poor performance against Utah when he impressed with a 9-for-11 showing in the air in the first half, with 117 yards passing and a rushing and passing touchdown each. His quarterback rating was 201.2, a staunch increase from his postgame rating of 8.2 last week.

He finished the night 23-for-32 in the air for 245 yards, while adding an interception. His rating fell to 139.7

“I think we went back to not being efficient on those first downs and then pinning their ears back,” Agauno said. “I thought in the first half we were physical, keeping them off balance. I didn’t think we were doing that in the second half. And once we start playing catch up, then they’re just pinning their ears back. They’re a very athletic group, especially the secondary, and then it becomes tough for us. But if we were in that ballgame until the end from a physical standpoint I thought we could’ve run the ball against them.”

USC did take a 21-17 lead into halftime, and the four-point lead was largely reflective of three missed opportunities for ASU.

Three separate times in the first half, twice being on third downs, ASU pass-rushers Joe Moore and Travez Moore had their hands on Caleb Williams for would-be sacks. Instead USC quarterback Caleb Williams ducked, dipped, dived and dodged for massive gains, and heaved one ball from his own end zone that should have been intercepted. Instead, it turned into a first down.

USC scored touchdowns on both of the two extended drives on which those threes plays occurred.

In its first two drives of the second half, ASU ran nine plays and earned just one first down. On its second drive, one that came after a red zone interception from Timarcus Davis, the Sun Devils went three-and-out.

For those keeping score at home, that is three straight Sun Devil turnovers in the last two weeks that did not lead to points.

Williams (27-for-37, 348 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception) was nothing short of dazzling all game long, even while throwing his first interception of the season. ASU had no answer to his precision in the pocket, or his off-platform improvisations.

Defensively, ASU continues to take steps backward every week. Previously, it had been on the ground. On Saturday, it was through the air. Nine different USC receivers caught a pass, while three had over 50 yards receiving.

“The offensive side, they did their job,” safety Khoury Bethley said. “They kept us in the game today. The defense, we didn’t step up to the plate. I think we only had one stop on third down.”

Bethley was correct. USC converted 8-of-9 third downs, while ASU went 7-for-13 (which is an improvement offensively.)

At 1-4, you count your victories. This week’s loss to USC was a drastically better performance than last week. Amid a chaotic season, it’s easier to see the improvements.

“I will be relentless with the detail, I will be relentless with them,” Aguano said. “We get off the plane at 2:30 I will be in the office at six o’clock. Understand they’re going to give it everything they got and they’re going to get all of me. They’re giving all of them in that locker room, so we’re going to get there. Until we win, until we win handily I will not be satisfied at all.”