In what Herm Edwards called a tale of two halves, the USC vs. ASU final score saw the Trojans clinging to another too-close-for-comfort victory, 31-26.
The lowdown: Jekyll & Hyde USC came to play on Saturday afternoon in Tempe. The Trojans roared out to a pristine first quarter in which they opened up a 21-point lead while out-gaining Arizona State 315-to-1 in total yardage.
Kedon Slovis was the driving force of the offensive barrage, going 15-of-17 passing while amassing 297 yards and four touchdowns in the first quarter alone. Needless to say, it was a historic start for the true freshman.
ASU was without an 18-year-old starling of their own, Jayden Daniels. They struggled mightily on offense under Joey Yellen to start, another true freshman out of Orange County who was making his first ever appearance at the collegiate level. Early on, it sure looked like the case. The Sun Devils’ only score in the first came on a 3-play, 3-yard drive following yet another special teams breakdown, in the form of a 97-yard kickoff return by Brandon Aiyuk.
But after a 95-yard touchdown pass from Slovis to Amon-Ra St. Brown to close the quarter at 28-7 Trojans, the game completely changed.
It was then Arizona State’s opportunity to win the yardage battle, out-gaining the Trojans 338 to 232 over the final 45 minutes. USC mustered just three points on their final nine possessions and Yellen battled to chip away at the Trojans’ lead.
Three of those drives involved backup quarterback Matt Fink, who came on in relief of Slovis following a leg injury in the third quarter. But while the offensive struggles under Fink could be written off —he entered along with backup center Justin Dedich for a hurt Brett Neilon— the offense flat out stopped producing well before the injuries.
Slovis was just 14-of-22 for 133 yards after the first quarter, and a running game led by Kenan Christon was unreliable at best, as the Trojans averaged just 2.5 yards per carry for the game.
Defensively, USC’s defense was what they are. ASU got them off balance with an assault of screens, and Yellen got into a rhythm with Eno Benjamin as his security blanket. They clawed back into the game with a fourth quarter touchdown drive to pull within five points, at 31-26.
With the Trojans unable to kill off the game offensively, ASU amounted one last drive to try and earn yet another comeback win in the Herm Edwards Era. They marched valiantly with their backup quarterback despite starting at their own 10-yard line, but it’d ultimately be for naught.
Senior USC defensive end Christian Rector had his biggest play of the season, picking off Yellen with 25 seconds left in the game. He batted a pass down at the line scrimmage, and then immediately leapt and caught it in an impressive athletic display to seal the victory.
The win runs USC’s record to 6-4 to get them bowl eligible, something they failed to achieve last November despite three surely winnable games against Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame.
Slovis, despite a start that had him looking destined to break Matt Barkley’s single-game passing record, finished with 432 yards and a passer rating of 196.1.
The takeaway: If you’re still waiting for USC to play a complete game, you’re not alone. The Trojans put together an extremely dominant first quarter followed by three sputtery quarters that resulted in a hanging-on-for-dear-life victory.
It happened against Fresno State. It happened against Oregon. It happened Saturday afternoon. It’s simply the story of the 2019 team, as it was the 2018 team. They’ve looked both incredibly good and incredibly poor at times, with their inconsistency serving as the ultimate limiting factor on their ability to achieve their goals.
We’ve known this for a while now. Does it really matter though? Probably not. Ranting and raving about this team is fruitless at this point.
Mike Bohn is now officially on the job as the Trojans’ new athletic director and all indications are the Clay Helton era is not only on life support, but likely coming to an end barring a miraculous and entirely unexpected run to the Rose Bowl. Saturday’s ugly win didn’t do Helton any favors, apart from keeping those narrow Pac-12 Championship Game dreams alive for another week.
Player of the game: Amon-Ra St. Brown had the best game of his USC career. The do-it-all extraordinaire had 207 all-purpose yards on 14 touches, including a 95-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. But it wasn’t just the yardage that made him dangerous. He had multiple tightly contested catches, including a leaping highlight reel snag down the sideline in the third quarter.
Stat of the game: Kedon Slovis’s 347 passing yards in the first half were just ten fewer than Georgia Southern had all season entering Saturday.
Next on tap: The Trojans will look to make three-straight road victories when they travel to Berkeley to face the struggling Golden Bears next Saturday night. Cal beat USC last year for the first time in 15 years, making it a revenge spot against the Fighting Justin Wilcoxes.