It was a huge game — especially considering the season ended last week. After getting its College Football Playoff hopes wrecked at Notre Dame on Week 8, No. 21 USC faced Arizona State on Saturday, hoping to remain in control of at least its conference destiny. A raucous crowd roared on the Sun Devils, as ASU looked to hand the Trojans their second consecutive loss and seize control of the Pac-12 South.
The night — like so many other games this season — began with a whimper at USC’s 25-yard line. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold faked a handoff to junior running back Ronald Jones II but was flushed from the pocket. Darnold danced around the backfield, hesitating to pass twice with no options open, and was pulled down to the turf for a 10-yard loss.
But coming off a 49-14 drubbing in South Bend, the Trojans were in no mood for a rerun of the debacle against Notre Dame. This time, they would wind up on the right side of a 48-17 blowout.
“When you’re trying to win a championship, you have to have one of these victories where you come to another team’s place in a hostile environment and be able to stay in first,” head coach Clay Helton said. “This is what these players and coaches were able to do. I’m extremely proud of them.”
Darnold gave the ball to Jones 15 minutes later — in the opening seconds of the second quarter. Jones exploded through the Sun Devils’ front, then their secondary. A blink and he was across midfield, and then he was gone. Jones pulled up 67 yards later in the end zone. The extra point staked USC a 21-3 cushion. After seemingly playing all season on the back foot, the Trojans were finally dictating the tempo.
“These kids … came out here, they had their jaw set and played some of their best football of the season,” Helton said.
USC regathered quickly after opening the game with a sack. Darnold fired a 12-yard bullet to redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns to move the sticks on third down and found his redshirt freshman receiver again five plays later, firing cross-body while rolling out to his right for a 21-yard catch-and-run. Darnold went for the end zone the very next play, and he dropped a pinpoint pass into junior wideout Deontay Burnett’s outstretched arms. It was the deep shot Trojan fans have rarely seen Darnold execute this season: 32 yards to cap a nine-play, 75-yard drive. For the first time in three weeks, USC got on the board first, racing out to a 7-0 lead.
The two teams traded punts after the opening score, but a blown assignment from sophomore cornerback Jack Jones gifted the Sun Devils 70 yards through the air on their second drive. ASU took advantage with a field goal to cut USC’s lead to four.
But that was as close as the Sun Devils would get. After the two sides traded punts once again near the end of the first quarter, Darnold found Vaughns on a curl route, and a missed tackle from cornerback Kobe Williams allowed Vaughns to streak 42 yards to the pylon. Jones soon followed with his long touchdown run to extend the advantage even further.
As USC pulled away, the Sun Devils struggled to keep their defense off the field, and Vaughns found paydirt for the second time before halftime, when Darnold forced a throw through triple-coverage to find his receiver in the back of the end zone. Vaughns finished the night with 126 receiving yards and two scores — a new career high in both categories.
“Tyler has been a big part to the passing game for a while now,” Darnold said. “I think the way he works and the fact that every single play the ball is coming to him is huge. That’s a really great mentality to have as a receiver.”
A successful Hail Mary from Manny Wilkins to Kyle Williams trimmed ASU’s deficit to 31-10 at halftime, and an opening-drive score in the second half brought the Sun Devils within two touchdowns. But the Trojans responded with a quickfire score of their own: Vaughns took the ball 22 yards on another big catch-and-run, and Jones ran for his second house call of the night, busting out a 64-yard scamper to re-establish USC’s three-touchdown edge. Jones gashed ASU for 216 yards over the course of the game, the majority coming on his pair of long touchdown runs.
“Great offensive line play up front,” Jones said. “Receivers [were] taking away the corners and safeties for me, so [I was] just splitting it, and it comes out to a race.”
The Trojan defense, coming off an undressing against the Fighting Irish, rebounded with a much more encouraging hour against the Sun Devils. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s unit was stout when required, highlighted by a turnover on downs to ice the game late in the third quarter and a pick-six by redshirt sophomore safety Ykili Ross late in the fourth quarter. USC sacked Wilkins six times — three coming on a career night from junior defensive end Rasheem Green and the other three from senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. Despite still giving up multiple large gains, including the 70-yard blown coverage and first-half Hail Mary, ASU’s 17 points and fewer than 400 total yards were a significant improvement from the 49 points and 497 yards given up to Notre Dame.
“I knew we were going to play like this because it’s in our nature,” redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins said. “To get beat down — you want to come back and show how good you can really be. I kind of knew we were going to play like this, and I demanded it from my team. As captains we demanded it from our team.”
The Trojans (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) now gear up for another titanic divisional clash against an Arizona team, as they host the Wildcats in the Coliseum next Saturday. The winner of the tilt will have a clear path to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship in December, and Arizona will fancy its chances after scoring more than 40 points in each of its games this month — including a 58-37 shootout upset over No. 15 Washington State on Saturday.
“I think this is our turning point, if I’m being honest,” Hawkins said. “I think we’re really going to turn it around from here and be the team we really want to be.”