For a USC football team coming off of a demoralizing loss to Stanford, Saturday night in Tempe was about exercising some demons and renewing confidence in their abilities.
Gone was the talk of postgame firings and defensive meltdowns. Forgotten were past trips to ASU marred in turnover explosions and red zone struggles.
The Trojans beat Arizona State 42-14, winning in Tempe for the first time since Pete Carroll roamed the sidelines.
Given that USC did it by responding to adversity –not to mention taking advantage of turnovers to build a commanding 35-0 halftime lead– it was a game that Carroll himself would be proud of. And one that Steve Sarkisian will cherish.
What changed from a team that couldn’t get Stanford’s offense off the field last week?
“We got heart,” linebacker Su’a Cravens said after the game.
That heart was seen in the Trojans’ ability to get back at it after last week’s loss, almost as if it never happened.
“Just be grimy and play with a lot of swagger,” Adoree’ Jackson said of the defensive game plan. “There’s nothing that we didn’t do last week. I guess we just didn’t have that swagger that we normally play with.”
Saturday night, that swagger was back. And it was proof that when USC is firing on all cylinders, they’re a difficult team to beat in all three phases of the game.
On offense, Cody Kessler and company showed why they’re the nation’s No. 1 offense in S&P+. The Trojans averaged 11.1 yards per pass attempt, were 8 of 10 on third downs in the first half and set the tone by running up-tempo and keeping ASU’s defense off balance.
On defense, it was all about pressure and disrupting the Arizona State game plan. Despite struggling against the run at times, USC repeatedly put the Sun Devils in long yardage situations. Armed with a steady pass rush, it ultimately led to three timely turnovers and Mike Bercovici’s lowest passer rating as a starter.
Then there was special teams. The aforementioned Jackson was so electrifying that he had the entire press box at Sun Devil Stadium murmuring during a 45-yard cut-back punt return in which he stopped on a dime like Reggie Bush.
Swagger. Yeah, it’s a cliche and intangible, but for USC, it effectively translates to just being aggressive.
“When we’re at our best, we’re going to attack you,” Sarkisian said. “I never want an opponent to come onto the field thinking we’re a conservative team.”
A week ago, that’s a phrase that’s used to mock the Trojans. But USC answered the bell and their army of critics by leaving no stone unturned against ASU.
They threw several balls deep down field. They rolled the dice and played Jackson on offense.
And perhaps the most appreciated development by spectators, they seemingly blitzed more than we’ve seen since Justin Wilcox got the job as defensive coordinator.
Altogether, it resulted in a win that USC can feel pretty darn good about, against a team that was fully capable of doing the same thing to them.
So what a difference a week makes. After Stanford seemingly derailed the season’s objectives, the Trojans now find themselves with a 3-1 record that many predicted through four games.
Only, it’s a 3-1 record with a pivotal win over a Pac-12 South foe. A foe in Arizona State that has long stood in USC’s way in getting to the conference title game.
It’s early and there’s a lot of football still to be played. Heck, there’s still a fair amount of problem areas on the team for Sarkisian’s staff to address, like in-game adjustments.
But after what this USC team has gone through and how they were left for dead by many, a crucial tiebreaker and a convincing bounce-back win is what they desperately needed.
They’ll gladly take it into the bye week. Now comes the hard part: staying consistent week in and week out.
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