Early defensive struggles doom ASU football in Joey Yellen's debut vs. USC

After surrendering 28 first-quarter points, ASU's attempted comeback fell short after late interception

Things were supposed to be different. Following a bye week that included a trip home for players, there was an expectation that this was a changed team. 

And yet, in Saturday’s 31-26 loss to the visiting USC Trojans, many of ASU’s previous vices reared their ugly heads as the Sun Devils dropped their third straight contest.

“If we stop digging ourselves these dang holes, we’d be a pretty good football team,” defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said. “We’re not right now; we’re just good enough to lose to a team we should beat.”

USC opened Saturday’s game on a tear, scoring touchdowns on each of its first four possessions. The team racked up 315 of its 547 total yards in the first quarter alone, shredding an ASU defense that often looked overmatched and underprepared. 

Trojan freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis was especially superb in the early parts of Saturday’s contest, completing 15-of-17 passes for 297 yards and four touchdowns in the opening frame.

But, according to Gonzales, a switch flipped after USC's final touchdown of the day. The score, a 95-yard pass from Slovis to sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, sparked something within his unit. 

From then on, the group played with a renewed intensity and hunger while forcing USC out of its rhythm. Yet Gonzales, staring at a 28-13 halftime deficit, knew that it still may not be enough. 

“Two plays (were) the difference in this game,” Gonzales said, referring to St. Brown’s score and running back Kenan Christon’s 58-yard touchdown reception earlier in the quarter. “After we gave up the last long touchdown, we decided to start playing, and they had trouble moving the ball the rest of the day.”

ASU's inspired play continued into the second half, when the defense allowed only three points and 162 total yards. The previously sharp Slovis often looked rattled as the Sun Devil secondary drastically improved their play while the ASU pass rush slowly began to inflict more pressure. 

“When I look at the game, it’s like a game of two halves,” head coach Herm Edwards explained. “The first half we just broke down in the secondary too many times — big play after big play and spotted them points. Then we decided to rally again, and we fell a little short.”

When the game mattered most, the ASU defense came up huge, forcing a punt to give the Sun Devils the ball back with 3:29 left, trailing by five points. ASU needed a touchdown to complete a comeback of historic proportions. 

Instead, USC defensive end Christian Rector came up with a juggling interception, subduing the raucous ASU crowd and pushing the Sun Devils even further down the Pac-12 standings.

 “When we decide to play a full game,” Gonzales said, parroting Edwards’ half time message, "we’ll be a pretty good football team.”

The interception, which came with just 25 seconds left, was one of the few blemishes during an otherwise impressive debut for freshman quarterback Joey Yellen. Thrust into the role after an injury to freshman starter Jayden Daniels, Yellen played admirably, throwing for 292 yards and four touchdowns in the loss. 

For offensive coordinator Rob Likens, the context of Yellen’s performance made it one he’ll remember forever. 

“To come in and just have a couple days of practice and do what he did, unbelievable,” Likens said. “I can’t say enough about it. It’s pretty amazing.”

It was still unclear whether Yellen would even be the starter leading up to Saturday’s game, as the severity of Daniels' knee injury fluctuated throughout the week. 

When it became official, Likens was tasked with making “a lot” of offensive changes, reengineering the scheme to best tailor to Yellen’s strengths. While the final product was ultimately relatively successful, compiling a respectable 26 points and 339 total yards, Likens was sure to make everyone fully aware of just how difficult the process was. 

“I would be up here using the word miracle (if we won), but we didn’t come through,” Likens said. “It’s tough right now to watch it all unfold, but the school of hard knocks is a tough teacher and that’s what we’re getting taught right now.”

Up next for ASU is a trip to Corvallis, Oregon for a matchup with the Oregon State Beavers. With only three games remaining for the Sun Devils, the coaching staff is well aware the lessons learned at the end of this season could pay massive dividends down the road. 

“I know the Sun Devil fans are frustrated, we are as frustrated as you are as coaches,” Gonzales said. “But I promise you, show up like you did today, and we’ll build a special program here in Tempe.” 


 Reach the reporter at Jrosenfa@asu.edu or follow @jacobrosenfarb on Twitter. 

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