As the final seconds of ASU’s 31-26 loss on Saturday to the USC Trojans ticked away, the stark realities of the perilous situation the Sun Devils now found themselves in became clear.
Standing at 5-4 after three straight losses, a first in the Herm Edwards era, a team that once held aspirations of a Rose Bowl appearance now found themselves still searching for bowl eligibility. With only three remaining opportunities for ASU to hit the six game benchmark, Edwards and his coaching staff are working to diagnose a slew of problems they were previously unaware existed.
“I don’t know if it’s effort or game plan or not, I just think it’s a lack of focus at times,” Edwards said of the team’s recent first quarter struggles. “I just think it’s maybe guys trying to do too much or trying to make a play rather than just play the defense that’s called and fundamentally play it correctly."
The errors Edwards refers to were rampant in the first quarter of ASU’s loss Saturday as the team trailed by 21 points before the period even ended. They had been outgained 315 total yards to one, and had allowed USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis to throw for 297 yards and four touchdowns.
The dominance from the Trojans shifted something within the Sun Devil defense, as the group shut down the USC offense to the tune of 232 total yards and only three points in the remaining three quarters.
“Looking up at that scoreboard and seeing 7 to 28, that wasn’t a good feeling, especially looking up and you see seven seconds left in the first quarter. That was a huge shock for us,” redshirt junior Chase Lucas explained. “I feel like if we had started coming out swinging in the first quarter, it would’ve been a shutout.”
One of the biggest contributors to ASU’s defensive turnaround Saturday was sophomore linebacker Darien Butler. One of the team’s four captains, Butler was a vocal presence on the sideline as he, along with both Lucas and senior defensive back Kobe Williams, rounded up the rest of the defensive unit. The trio lit into the mostly underclassmen unit, reminding the group of what it took to succeed at this level.
“That’s all I’m trying to do is lead these guys in the right direction,” Butler said. “I’ve followed all my life, now it’s time for me to lead, so I’ve got to step up and make something happen myself.”
One of Butler’s core messages revolved around the team’s upperclassmen. As the season’s end inches closer, Butler wanted to remind the unit about the larger stakes at play, all while calling out some perceived selfishness.
“We’re playing for each other,” Butler said of the team’s conversations. “There are seniors on this team who will probably never play football again, so we’ve got to play for those guys. It’s just not fair to them how they put in all this work and some people got the mentality of ‘oh I’ll be back next year.’”
On the other side of the ball, ASU’s focus Saturday was primarily freshman quarterback Joey Yellen, who was starting in the place of typical starter and fellow freshman Jayden Daniels. Yellen’s acclimation to college football was swift as he faced a seven point deficit before even taking a snap, but his performance earned rave reviews from the coaching staff.
“He did a great job, he really did,” Edwards said. “I mean, he wasn’t perfect, but we weren’t perfect as a team. But I think to be put in that type of situation, first time playing against a very talented defense, four touchdown passes, you can’t ask a kid to do more than that.”
Yellen often flashed experience beyond his years, displaying an impressive pocket awareness and a keen sense of how to lead an offense. His 292 passing yards and four touchdowns were some of the strongest statistics from any Sun Devil debut, but they become even more impressive when given the proper context.
On the game’s third play, Yellen suffered a severely bruised shoulder that kept him out of practice Tuesday and could force him to miss Saturday’s contest. Yet in the moment, Yellen shrugged it off and continued to play at this elite level.
“Definitely a welcome to college football moment,” said Yellen of the injury-inducing tackle. “Kind of got the sense for how much bigger and faster guys are at this level. My first hit in a year, so kind of got that early.”
Saturday’s contest against the Oregon State Beavers in Corvallis will likely represent the Sun Devils' easiest shot at claiming bowl eligibility. With the No. 6 Oregon Ducks coming to town followed by the UA Wildcats, there may be no better time than the present for ASU to secure their chance to reach a bowl game.
“This is a must-win game coming up,” redshirt junior wide receiver Frank Darby explained. “We have to go to a bowl game, we need to go to a bowl game, so this is a must win.”