The black-clad fans at Sun Devil Stadium looked on in horror as USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis threw his fourth touchdown pass of the first quarter. Slovis fit a perfect ball between three defenders to sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 95-yard score that gave the Trojans an early 28-7 lead.
It looked as though USC had learned from its scoring woes after a disappointing showing against Oregon last weekend. But in the end — after Arizona State outscored the Trojans 19-3 in the final three quarters — USC’s narrow 31-26 victory came down to a takeaway on the final drive.
The Sun Devils had the ball at the Trojans’ 32-yard line with just under a minute left when redshirt senior defensive lineman and team captain Christian Rector tipped a pass before making a diving interception to seal the deal for USC.
“To come on the road, down bodies, and those kids find a way to win and your captain makes the final play, it’s special,” head coach Clay Helton said. “That’s what captains do. They don’t wait for other people to make it happen. They make it happen, and I thought it was a very special moment for Christian.”
Through the first quarter, it looked like the Trojans — who were routed by Oregon 56-24 last weekend — would have the upper hand this time around.
Slovis broke USC’s record for most passing yards in the first quarter with 297. He also had four passing touchdowns in the first frame, including a 58-yarder to freshman running back Kenan Christon and the connection with St. Brown.
“It was a lot of fun,” Slovis said of the Trojans’ first quarter performance. “It showed what we can do with this offense when we execute. Later in the game, we did not execute as well. When we execute and everyone does their job, that is what it can look like.”
Slovis left the game for much of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth due to a calf cramp, and redshirt junior Matt Fink led the Trojans to a field goal by redshirt sophomore kicker Chase McGrath. It was USC’s only score after the first quarter.
Christon appeared more versatile against ASU, tallying 82 yards receiving and getting 20 carries — the most of his young career. After toting 15 carries last week, it appears the coaches are placing more trust in the young back to balance out the pass-heavy Air Raid approach.
USC was forced to shift its defensive plan after it was announced shortly before game time that ASU freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels, known for his scrambling ability, would not be starting due to a leg injury.
“We were really concerned about [Daniels] scrambling, he had a lot of carries out of the pocket,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “[ASU freshman quarterback Joey Yellen] was more of a traditional drop-back passer, and so we alerted the guys when we found out what the situation was going to be. It didn’t really change that many of the calls, just probably played a little bit more split-safety coverages, particularly once we got a lead.”
The Trojan defense held ASU to just 1 yard of total offense in the first quarter. The Sun Devils’ sole first-quarter touchdown was set up by a 97-yard kickoff return from ASU senior wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
The Trojans’ first-quarter dominance was not enough to put the Sun Devils away, though. USC’s offense failed to capitalize on two second-quarter takeaways, including a forced fumble by sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga and an interception by redshirt sophomore safety Isaiah Pola-Mao.
Penalties proved costly for both teams. Redshirt sophomore Jay Tufele’s roughing the passer penalty overturned an interception by Hufanga, and ASU’s subsequent touchdown narrowed the Trojans’ lead to 5. The Sun Devils could have taken the lead midway through the fourth quarter when Slovis threw a pick-six, but the play was called back due to a holding penalty on senior linebacker Khaylan Kearse-Thomas.
Although the Trojans gave up four passing touchdowns to Yellen in his debut, Pendergast said the defense accomplished its main goal — forcing ASU to win through the air.
“We wanted to come out here and put our foot down and say, ‘The back is not going to run the ball,’” Pendergast said. “But we were not going to allow them to run the football. They were going to have to beat us throwing the football. And the guys rose up, took the challenge on and I was happy with the numbers.”
The Trojans are now bowl-eligible after missing out on a bowl appearance last season. However, USC can’t afford complacency in its final two games against Cal and UCLA.
“It was huge,” Rector said of the Trojans’ win. “Now we are bowl-eligible. It is a big deal, especially after last year. Getting this win is important, especially going forward trying to get these next two.”