ASU coach Todd Graham knew what was at stake heading into Saturday’s Pac-12 South home bout against USC. He told his assistants one simple message before the game:
“We either move forward or we moved backwards,” he said.
It took ASU (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) some time to adjust, but a couple of game-changing plays helped the Sun Devils stomp the gas pedal and not look back.
ASU defeated USC 62-41, the most points the Sun Devils ever scored on the Trojans (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12) and the most points the Sun Devils have put up in a conference game since 2002.
Even though it was over a struggling Trojans team facing uncertainty, the win over a division rival gave the Sun Devils a lot of momentum heading into the rest of their schedule, especially for senior safety Alden Darby and many of ASU’s players who hail from southern California.
“Of course it’s a boost of confidence,” Darby said. “It just shows us that if we go to work all week long in practice and don’t have any mental mistakes, the result will be like tonight, every night.”
ASU redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly had the most passing yards against USC for any other quarterback in school history with 351, but the last person he will credit is himself.
Kelly brought the entire offensive line with him to the postgame press conference and praised his linemen as they stood behind. The line was also responsible for the Sun Devils finishing with 261 rushing yards, the most this season.
“It started off with these five,” Kelly said, pointing behind him. “They came to work all week and they didn’t allow a sack tonight. They’re doing a great job; they’re starting to come together. I believe in these guys. We’re going to keep working, establish our running game, and then our offense starts going.”
ASU drew first blood when a 10-play, 75-yard drive set up redshirt sophomore quarterback Michael Eubank for a 1-yard touchdown run. The Sun Devils forced the Trojans to punt in their first drive, but after ASU went three-and-out, freshman tailback Justin Davis helped tie the game up with a 26-yard touchdown run.
ASU had problems moving the ball up for the rest of the first quarter, only rushing for 23 yards. USC struck again with redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler’s 10-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore tailback Tre Madden at the beginning of the second quarter.
It looked like a stagnant offense combined with a defense vulnerable against the running game was going to slow the Sun Devils again, similar to what happened in the loss to Stanford.
Kelly had other plans.
On a read-option play, Kelly pulled the ball and ran it for 40 yards that became ASU’s longest run play of the season at that point. Two plays later, Kelly found Grice for an 11-yard touchdown pass that tied the game up at 14.
Redshirt defensive back Osahon Irabor came up with an interception that later set up freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez for a 28-yard kick that gave ASU a 17-14 advantage. Senior safety Alden Darby forced and recovered a fumble that resulted in a 21-yard field goal from Gonzalez, giving ASU a 20-14 edge at halftime.
“That was the most stressful first half I’ve had in awhile,” Graham said. “We were on our heels the first quarter.”
The fight wasn’t over. USC came out of the gates swinging in the second half. The Trojans opened with a three-play, 75-yard drive that was capped off with Madden’s 24-yard touchdown rush to capture a 21-20 lead.
ASU didn’t lose its touch either. The Sun Devils countered with Kelly’s 74-yard touchdown strike to sophomore running back D.J. Foster to go up 28-20.
It looked like it was going to be a back-and-forth affair, but that quickly ended when Darby jumped Kessler’s pass and returned a pick-six for 46 yards to give ASU a 34-21 lead.
Then the rout was on.
With the help from ASU’s defense that held off the Trojans, Grice continued to light up the scoreboard with a 8-yard touchdown reception and a 9-yard scoring run, giving the Sun Devils their largest lead of the game: 27 points and a 48-21 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
USC orchestrated a small rally with Madden’s 48-yard touchdown reception and recovered an onside kick that resulted in a 15-yard scoring run from Davis that brought the Trojans closer at 48-34.
“We gave up three touchdowns there late that stressed me out,” Graham said. “We don’t need to be doing that.”
As if the game wasn’t already out of reach, Grice brought in one more score with a 28-yard touchdown run, followed by redshirt junior running back Deantre Lewis’ 1-yard score.
One surprise standout for ASU was redshirt junior kicker Alex Garoutte. On top of handling kickoffs, Garoutte also had three punts that netted 114 yards.
Garoutte was confined to being a kickoff specialist after Gonzalez took over as the field goal kicker, but found another way to contribute.
“Alex is MVP (for this game) in my mind,” Graham said.
Grice, the nation’s leading scorer, increased his touchdown count to 11 and finished the game with 99 all-purpose yards.
The Sun Devils’ lone turnover was Kelly’s pass that freshman safety Su’a Cravens intercepted in the third quarter, while USC committed four total turnovers. ASU committed four penalties while USC had six.
ASU heads to Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 5 for a neutral-site match against No. 22 Notre Dame, who is coming off a 35-21 loss to No. 14 Oklahoma.
Even after a dominating performance against USC — a team ASU has always struggled to beat — Darby doesn’t think ASU has played to its potential. But its on the right track.
“Our A game has not been shown yet,” he said. “We’ve had moments and spurts where we show our A game, but we still have some mistakes to correct. Our A game has yet to be shown, but we’ll get there.”
- Several USC players left the game early due to injury, including junior All-American wide receiver Marqise Lee, who hurt his left knee early in the fourth quarter.
- Redshirt senior defensive tackle Will Sutton recorded his first and only sack of the season so far in the first quarter on Kessler.
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