ASU unable to keep up with No. 6 USC in 42-25 loss

The Devils fell short in the City of Angels
Arizona State running back Xazavian Valladay, right, tries to fend off Southern California...
Arizona State running back Xazavian Valladay, right, tries to fend off Southern California defensive back Jaylin Smith during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)(Mark J. Terrill | AP)
Published: Oct. 2, 2022 at 1:00 AM MST
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LOS ANGELES (3TV/CBS 5) -- As the Sun Devil players walked off the field following their fourth consecutive loss, the scoreboard reflected what most thought would happen: USC won comfortably on Saturday.

Yet the 42-25 final score doesn’t tell the entire story for a beleaguered Arizona State program. For much of Saturday night, the Sun Devils were hanging with the nation’s sixth-ranked team. After weeks of ineffectiveness on offense, ASU showed that they could present problems to a quality defense. In a season so far defined by the fallout from an early coaching change, there were positive developments to build upon.

But those developments were not enough to bring a win back to Tempe on this night. The high-powered USC offense put on a show, and the Sun Devils’ own attack fizzled after a fast start. Yet in a big-picture sense, they could provide some light in what has been an otherwise dismal start to the year, with the Sun Devils now 1-4 and 0-2 in Pac-12 play.

“Our guys are getting better, and I’m proud of them, said ASU interim head coach Shaun Aguano. “They should hold their heads up high. We’ll be back.”

The Ohana

“I’m not a good loser.”

The Result

USC wasted little time in showing off their firepower during the game’s opening drive. Trojan quarterback Caleb Williams displayed his dual-threat ability, completing all five passes on the drive while turning a fumbled third-down snap into a first down run, and he quickly capped the drive with a one-yard sneak for a touchdown.

ASU was able to respond with one of their most impressive drives of the season. Showcasing improved play design, the Sun Devils marched into USC territory, and Jones connected with running back X Valladay for a 29-yard touchdown to even the score.

“I thought we came out fast and had a pretty good start,” Valladay said.

The tied was short-lived, as Williams again responded by leading a 10-play, 75-yard drive that was ended with a seven-yard score to Mario Williams.

Undaunted, ASU again went on the move, but a holding call negated what would have been a first-down run inside the Trojan 5-yard line, forcing ASU to settle for a 40-yard field goal by Carter Brown.

A penalty on the ensuing kickoff pushed USC back to their own 6-yard line. The Sun Devils, dialing up more pressure than they had in recent weeks, appeared to have Williams cornered, but he was able to elude the defenders and connect with Jordan Addison for a 13-yard gain that jumpstarted the drive. Eight plays later, Williams found Malcom Epps for a 4-yard touchdown.

“It came down to keeping him contained and finishing the play,” said ASU safety Khoury Bethley.

To ASU’s credit, they answered back. With three good gains from running back Daniyel Ngata to open the next drive, followed by a 34-yard reception by Bryan Thompson, ASU moved into the redzone. Jones then scored on a 6-yard scramble to pull ASU to within 21-17 at halftime.

“In the first half, we were physical, keeping them off balance,” Aguano said.

Entering as 25.5-point underdogs and trailing by just four at the half, ASU had a chance to take the lead as they received the kickoff to open the third quarter. However, their offense stalled out after a single first down, and ASU was forced to punt.

Having been largely unable to contain USC in the first half, ASU’s defense responded when their backs were to the wall. Williams drove the Trojans inside the ASU 10 looking to put the game away, but ASU cornerback Timarcus Davis intercepted a pass to end the threat. It was the first turnover all season by the USC offense.

The hope turned out to be fleeting, however. ASU’s offense was off the field after a quick three-and-out, and some nifty Williams scrambles on the next drive helped get USC back in the endzone thanks to a Travis Dye touchdown run.

“Offensive side, they did their job,” Bethley said. “They kept us in the game. Defense, we didn’t step up to the plate, though.”

Williams’ third touchdown pass of the night extended the Trojan lead to 35-17 early in the fourth quarter. ASU did claw back on the next drive, with Valladay scoring on a 2-yard run and then catching a pass for the 2-point conversion. to close the deficit to 35-25. An onside kick appeared to be recovered by ASU, but it was negated on an offside penalty enforced upon review.

Dye scored on another run on the next possession to put an exclamation mark on another productive night for the Trojan offense.

The Critical Moment

After squandering a chance to take the lead to open the second half, ASU looked like they were about to be put away for the night. The Trojans had driven down the field and were threating to score. With a first-and-goal at the ASU 9-yard line, Williams lofted a pass into the corner of the endzone looking for Addison, but Davis was in great position and hauled in the interception.

With momentum on their side and the ball at their 20, ASU went to work. But a quick three-and-out ended the threat, and USC made them pay with a touchdown drive on the ensuing possession to dash the Sun Devils’ hopes.

“We left a lot of money on the field today,” Bethley said.

The Offense

It was truly a tale of two halves. ASU racked up 218 yards and averaged 8.1 yards per play over the first two quarters. But in the second half, with a chance at a historic upset initially within their grasp, they could only move 118 yards, with 59 coming on the final drive with the game already out of reach.

While the finish was disappointing, the fast start could prove to be a template for success moving forward. ASU offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas dialed up an effective game plan, utilizing different formations, quarterback runs, and shifts to get his playmakers in open space. Leading the way was a ground game that amassed 101 yard in the first half, a week after gaining just six for the entire game.

“We were physical in the run game,” Aguano said. “There were a couple of them we could have broke. In the first half, we kept them guessing.”

Valladay continued to be the team’s workhorse. In addition to his team-high 64 yards, and hauled in the opening 29-yard touchdown pass on a well-designed play.

“We did some different things offensively, and coaches are trying to spread the ball out a lot,” Valladay said.

Jones looked good and poised in the first half, using his legs to buy time for his receivers downfield and running when he had open space. The Trojan pressure was able to contain him in the second half. He completed 23 of his 32 passes for 243 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Wide receiver Bryan Thompson had his most productive day as a Sun Devil leading the team with five catches for 86 yards. He was one of eight players to catch multiple passes on the day.

“We have a lot of playmakers, and you never know where the ball is going,” said Valladay.

The effort Saturday night was not enough to keep pace with the potent Trojan attack, but after several weeks of ineffectiveness and conservative playcalling, building upon the first-half showing could be enough to jumpstart the Sun Devils down the stretch.

The Defense

Few defenses in the Pac-12, and perhaps the nation, will have a chance to slow down the Trojans for long. With Williams at the helm, ASU had very little margin for error.

The pass rush, which has struggled all year long, was better on Saturday but still struggled to finish plays. They routinely got to Williams, only to see the sophomore quarterback escape pressure and make plays downfield. It was during those broken plays that ASU was often hurt for big gains.

“We had a lot of chances today at the quarterback and didn’t capitalize,” Bethley said. “When you get those opportunities to get off the field and put them behind the chains, you have to capitalize on them, and we didn’t do that today.”

“Our guys need to make sure they keep their eyes on their guys,” said Aguano. “We talk about dirty eyes. When the quarterback breaks the pocket and extends the plays, they get dirty eyes and look at the quarterback and peeking, and those guys get separation.”

Williams threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns and added 44 yards and another score on the ground. He led a USC offense that gained 485 total yards on the night.

“The quarterback Williams has a lot of moxie,” Aguano admitted.

ASU routinely struggled with getting USC off the field on third downs. Whether it was through Williams’ brilliance, the dynamic group of wide receivers, or an ill-timed penalty, the Trojans had little problem sustaining drives, converting on eight of their nine attempts.

“We couldn’t get off the field on third downs, and that’s been our nemesis,” Agauno said.

Kyle Soelle notched 10 tackles, his fourth straight game in double digits, while Bethley added seven, including the team’s lone sack.

While the team may not face another offense as talented as USC for the remainder of the year, the lack of consistent pressure and failures on third down will continue to hurt.

The Question: Can they carry the positives forward?

No one outside of the Sun Devil program expected ASU to win this game. USC is one of the most talented teams in the nation, and they have emerged as College Football Playoff contenders. But after the tumultuos weeks ASU has endured, seeing the Sun Devils keeping pace into the second half is noteworthy.

The question is whether Saturday was a sign of continued improvement that the Sun Devils can apply for the remainder of their schedule. ASU’s interim coach won’t be wasting time finding that answer.

“We get off the plan at 2:30, and I’ll be in the office at 6 o’clock,” said Aguano. “They’re going to give it all they go, and they’re going to get all of me.”

While USC certainly had the talent advantage, ASU was able to show a national television audience that they have some quality players of their own. Some schematic improvements were a welcome sight for ASU fans to see. It’s now time for talent to finally converge with that scheme on a consistent basis.

“We’re going to keep fighting and keep pushing,” Valladay said. “Eventually, some great things are going to happen for the Sun Devils.”

“Until we win, and until we win handily, I will not be satisfied,” Aguano said.

The Next Step

ASU will return home next week to battle the Washington Huskies. Washington entered the week a perfect 4-0 and ranked No. 15 in the AP poll, but fell on the road 40-32 to UCLA on Friday night.

Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. with TV coverage on Pac-12 Network.

The Extra Point

  • ASU RB X Valladay