Trojans Stunned by ASU, Now Face Undefeated Arizona Wildcats


Former USC Quarterback (1986-1990) Shane Foley recaps the Trojans’ heartbreaking loss against Arizona State (4-1, 2-1), and previews the Trojans’ next game against #10 Arizona (5-0, 2-0).

Arizona State Recap

The Trojans came into last Saturday’s matchup looking to continue their winning ways vs. the Sun Devils at the Coliseum where they had not lost to ASU since 1999. USC had been pummeled in Tempe last year 62-41, tying the all-time mark in points given up by the Trojans and the lopsided loss was the final nail in Lane Kiffin’s coffin at USC. The Trojans were looking to move to 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 2006 and they were coming off a 25-point win the previous week over Oregon State.

Oct 4, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans receiver Nelson Agholor (15) scores on a 3-yard punt return against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Arizona State defeated USC 38-34. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Trojans struck first on Nelson Agholor’s 53-yard punt return which put USC up 7-0 in the first quarter. Arizona State tied the game early in the 2nd quarter with a four yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Bercovici to Jaelen Strong on a pick play that was the first touchdown pass the Trojans had surrendered on the season but it was only a sign of things to come.

After a Trojan drive stalled on 4th and 2 at the ASU 23-yard line, ASU connected for a 77-yard touchdown pass on the very next play and then went for the two-point conversion, which put them up 15-7 with 7:23 left in the 2nd quarter. The Trojans answered with an 11-play, 67-yard touchdown drive to cut Arizona State’s lead to 15-14. After USC forced an ASU punt, the offense mounted a 9-play, 64 yard drive and Andre Heidari converted a 35-yard field goal to put the Trojans up at half 17-15.

Arizona State scored first in the 3rd quarter with a 19-yard field goal to put ASU back on top 18-17. The Trojans countered with their own 33-yarder to go back up 20-18. USC running back Buck Allen’s presence was felt on a drive to start the 4th quarter and he accounted for 71 yards rushing and receiving which set up Cody Kessler’s gritty touchdown run on 1st and goal from the eight yard line which put the Trojans up 27-18.

USC forced a punt and got the ball back with 12:05 left in the game and they grinded down the clock to 5:39 behind the one-two punch of Buck Allen and Justin Davis but with a 3rd and 2 at the ASU 29-yard line with 6:34 on the clock, Kessler threw a quick pass to Nelson Agholor that was stuffed for a six-yard loss setting up 4th and 8 at the ASU 35 yard line. Coach Sarkisian inexplicably utilized his last timeout, apparently to consider a long field goal attempt, as Heidari had converted 52 and 53-yard field goals on the season.

Oct 4, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils receiver Jaelen Strong (21) celebrates with teammates D.J. Foster (8) and Cameron Smith (6) after catching a 46-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Arizona State defeated USC 38-34.

However, post-timeout the Trojans committed a false start penalty so Coach Sarkisian called a Kessler punt which pinned Arizona State down on their own two-yard line. The Sun Devils proceeded to drive 98 yards in 2:34 seconds and Bercovici carved up the Trojans secondary for this third touchdown of the night; a 21-yard strike to D.J. Foster that cut the USC lead to 27-25.

The Trojans recovered an onside kick and on the 2nd play from the line of scrimmage, Buck Allen burst for a 53-yard touchdown to give the Trojans a seemingly comfortable nine point lead once again with only 3:02 left. However, on the very next play after the kickoff, Bercovici rolled right and hit Camreon Smith on the money with Trojan defensive back Kevon Seymour leaving his feet which quickly turned into a 73-yard touchdown pass and a slim 34-32 USC lead. The touchdown exchanges took up a combined 69 seconds but the Trojans got the ball back on another onside kick recovery with 2:43 remaining and ASU had no timeouts.

USC went into “safe mode” with too much time left netting minus 2 yards in three plays and at the ASU 46-yard line, Kessler punted off the side of his leg for 18 yards which set up the final drive with only 23 seconds at the ASU 28-yard line. Bercovici completed a 26-yard pass to the USC 46-yard line and then spiked the ball quickly with seven ticks left. On the final play, Bercovici hoisted a Hail Mary pass that was snatched out of the air by Jaelen Strong at the goal line for a touchdown and a 38-34 win that left the Trojan faithful dazed and confused with no time left.

The Good

The Trojan offense had a tough time getting in rhythm and Cody Kessler was not as precise as he had been in previous games this season and he was lucky not to be intercepted but he played well enough to win. He finished 28-45 for 273 yards and he spread the ball around to eight different receivers.

The Trojans converted 11 of 23 3rd downs, 2 of 3 4th downs, and they were 4-4 in the red zone. He did miss a “hot” read in the first half with an unblocked linebacker that hammered him in the back for a sack. He played with heart and toughness which was epitomized by his eight-yard touchdown run that put the Trojans up 27-18 in the 3rd quarter. The Trojans have not turned the ball over in the last four games and Kessler has still not had an interception or fumble on the season.

Oct 4, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans tailback Javorius Allen (37) scores on a 53-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Arizona State defeated USC 38-34. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Buck Allen ran for 143 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns and Justin Davis finished with 67 yards on 14 carries. Allen pounds the football and he runs harder as the game goes on, which was demonstrated on his 53-yard dash for pay-dirt in late in the 4th quarter on an ASU blitz that put the Trojans up 34-25. Justin Davis is a slashing runner that attacks defenses and he was a solid complement at the right time against the Sun Devils. Coach Sarkisian challenged the running backs to make guys miss and break tackles at the second level and they responded. Buck also overcame a rare drop with four catches for 86 yards including a clutch wheel route that went for 37 yards.

Nelson Agholor continues to be Kessler’s primary target and he does not disappoint. He has the ability to make guys miss and he has sure hands. He finished with nine catches for 85 yards, many which came on second efforts on short passes. He has a burst in the open field. And he is also elusive with a great first step. He also made a huge play on a punt return, making the first guy miss and then exploding down the field untouched for a 53-yard touchdown early in the game.

Su’a Cravens and his move from safety to strong outside linebacker has made an immediate impact. He disrupted the flow of the game in the first half with 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack for six yards. He is athletic, instinctual and he has the technique to be able to get low and blow up much bigger linemen coming at him. His production was quieter in the 2nd half and the coaches need to get him on the field for more plays and they need to move him around more so that opposing teams cannot game-plan him out of plays.

The offensive line is improving but they have not yet become consistent and cohesive. They are a big, physical bunch that should be able to move the line of scrimmage consistently. Pad level continues to be a challenge and this creates challenges with physical fronts. They have been better at run-blocking the last two weeks in the second halves and they need to establish their dominance earlier in games. They gave up three sacks and they are ranked 95th in the country in sacks given up per game with 2.6. This must improve against some quick, aggressive defenses they will be seeing in the coming weeks. They do pull the interior line on the stretch play that they run and tight end Randall Telfer is a beast blocking down on the defensive end.

Oct 4, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) throws a pass against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Trojans’ run defense was strong statistically for the second week in a row giving up a paltry 31 net yards on 22 carries for a 1.4 average and only one rushing first down. ASU’s top running back D.J. Foster was held to 13 yards in 10 carries after averaging over 8.5 yards a carry on the season. They also limited the Sun Devils to 3-12 on 3rd down conversions. Middle linebacker Hayes Pullard finished with nine tackles and strong safety Gerald Bowman finished with eight tackles.

The Bad

The Trojan defensive line may not have yielded many yards rushing but their pass rush was virtually non-existent. They did finish with two sacks, one by Su’a Cravens in the first half and two by outside linebacker Scott Felix in the 4th quarter but one was negated by a defensive holding penalty on Chris Hawkins. The front seven was projected by Coach Sarkisian to be the strength of this football team but their anemic pass rush and lack of pressure is not disrupting offenses and it must improve.

The defensive line continues to default to utilizing a two-arm lock bull rush to get to opposing quarterbacks and there is very little movement with swim techniques or arm under moves in rushing the passer. Leonard Williams is a warrior and is projected to be a top five pick in the NFL draft next spring. He rarely comes out of the game and attracts double teams regularly but he has to develop his pass rushing ability in getting to the quarterback.

Dominant players, even with double teams, have the ability to change football games and they also free up teammates in one-on-ones to get to the quarterback. He is third on the team in tackles but he has only two sacks on the season and the Trojans only have eight sacks as a team which ranks 97th in the country. Antwaun Woods also got blown out twice on running plays when he has to be the plug in the middle of the line. Transfers Claude Pelon and Delvon Simmons have also been far from dominant at the other defensive end positon.

Oct 4, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils receiver Jaelen Strong (21) is defended by Southern California Trojans cornerback Kevon Seymour (13) at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Arizona State defeated USC 38-34. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Trojans’ offense post-Fresno State has been efficient but not explosive. Cody Kessler has been an effective game manager and has shown a very good ability to make good decisions and protect the football. Against Arizona State, after the first pass that was overthrown to Juju Smith and a dropped pass by Darreus Rodgers in the seam, there were three pass plays that went for more than 15 yards and none were down field throws. USC averaged 6.1 yards per completion on the night and the Sun Devils crept up and sat on routes as the game progressed. There were opportunities to get the ball to playmakers in space but there were no plays called and no threat of stretching the field which helped ASU’s safeties finish with 20 and 13 tackles.

Dropped passes were also a problem against the Sun Devils. Darreus Rodgers had three drops including on a third down which forced a punt in the first quarter and a sure touchdown which also ended in a change of possession. Buck Allen also had an uncharacteristic drop in the game.

The Ugly

The USC pass defense came into the game with confidence not having given up a passing touchdown on the season and holding Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion to 123 yards passing. It was a long afternoon for the Trojans pass defense as they were shredded by Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici who was making his second start at the collegiate level.

Bercovici threw for 510 yards and his five touchdowns passing broke the record against a USC defense. Arizona State averaged an astonishing 18.9 yards per catch with touchdown passes of 4, 77, 21, 73, and 46 yards. ASU receiver Jaelen Strong finished with 10 catches for 202 yards and three of the touchdowns including the last back-breaker on the Hail Mary to end the game. There were also several other plays where USC defensive backs were beat deep with passes that were just of reach. One of the major problems the defensive backs had was peeking into the backfield and one split second or lack of focus took them out of plays.

The coaching decisions and game management were not good enough to win. The Trojans were up by nine twice in the fourth quarter but were not able to finish the job. The defense gave up a 10 play, 98-yard drive in only 2:34 minutes and they conceded a 3rd and 10 and 4th and 10 as well as getting called for defensive holding which wiped out a sack at the start of the drive.

The Trojans’ offense also deviated from running the ball in a critical situation in the 4th quarter with the Trojans up 27-18. The offensive line was pounding the ASU defense and Buck Allen and Justin Davis had churned down the clock and picked up four first downs rushing. On 3rd and two, whether it was Kessler or Coach Sarkisian’s call to throw a bubble screen, it was the wrong one, especially with ASU’s defensive backs sitting on routes. Coach Sark’s decision to call his final timeout after that play compounded the problem which came back to hurt him at the end of the game.

The Trojan pass defense gave up more than 200 yards passing with less than six and a half minutes in the game including 144 yards on their last two drives with less than three minutes. It was bad to see Kevon Seymour taking a chance and missing the ball on the 73-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the drive that cut the Trojan lead back to two but it is unfathomable that the Trojans could be playing man-to-man with no safety behind him with a nine point lead and less than three minutes to play.

The decision to go into “safe mode,” playing not to lose vs. playing to win also proved fatal. The Sun Devils scored so fast on one play that there was still 2:43 left in the game and one first down was needed. Instead, three straight handoffs to Buck Allen netted negative two yards. It is easy to second guess but a bootleg play or play action could have been the big play that iced the game. The decision to have Kessler punt again rather than Kris Albarado also was costly and it helped set up the opportunity for Arizona State’s “perfect storm” since it shanked off his leg and gave ASU starting field position at their 28-yard line.

There is no excuse for confusion or having the wrong personnel on the field in a win or lose situation. Hayes Pullard playing deep middle was inexcusable and the lack of anyone going up to contest the ball in the air was pathetic. There were only seven seconds left and not much time for a personnel decision but it had to be made. You have to have your best athletes and leapers back there in that situation and the coaches have to be accountable for not having Su’a Cravens, Adoree Jackson, or even Bryce Dixon or Juju Smith ready to go in that scenario.


The Trojans are still looking for an identity after five games. Coach Sarkisian stated emphatically when he was hired that “USC was not rebuilding” and that he came back “to win championships.” After a blowout win over Fresno State in the opener and a gritty ‘bend but don’t break’ effort which led to a win over Stanford, the expectations were growing. However, after three more games, the Trojans are in search of a defense.

Oct 4, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian reacts during the game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

USC was beaten physically at Boston College giving up 452 yards rushing while netting 20 yards rushing on offense. The Arizona State debacle, especially down the stretch, with 510 yards passing and five touchdowns was another shocker. The Trojan defense has not been able to get stops when the game is on the line and the offense has not been able to finish and put games out of reach. Coach Sarkisian is still undecided about being a power running team or an explosive, up-tempo offense. He clearly slowed the offense down last Saturday to give his defense more rest. However, an offense has to take what the defense gives you and a defense that is cheating up and sitting on routes must be exploited.

When Coach Wilcox arrived at Washington, they improved in total defense from 105th in 2011 to 40th in 2012 and 35th in 2013. Their pass defense jumped 60 spots to 27th in 2012 to 11th in 2013. However, the trend has not gone that way so far at USC and their defense must improve at pressuring the quarterback and they must continue to play tougher against the run. They will also be facing a ton of mobile quarterbacks that run the read option in the 2nd half of the season and they will have to play with much more discipline than they have shown and execute their assignments.

Coach Wilcox would be well served to simplify the schemes and get his players in position to make plays. Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell should be considered at outside linebacker since they are quicker and more nimble than Scott Felix and J.R. Tavai. Tavai needs to get back to playing his natural position of defensive end on the line of scrimmage which he has been playing his whole career. Felix can also play on the end or at inside linebacker and he did a good job rushing and making plays last week.

The emotions have been running high in the land of Troy since Saturday’s finish and the backlash from fans, former players, and pundits has been abundant and boisterous. There were critical mistakes made by the coaching staff in the last game and some lackluster execution, especially down the stretch. However it is not time to throw in the towel after five games. There is a lot of season left and it is time to stop whining and complaining.

It seems that people have short memories. USC won one Rose Bowl in the 90’s and did not have a 10-win season from 1989-2001. There were losses to Memphis State in a 3-8 1991 season and 24-7 loss to Fresno State in the 1992 Freedom Bowl. There were eight straight losses to UCLA from 1991-1999 and there was the Paul Hackett era. Pete Carroll not only restored USC’s winning tradition, he took it to an entirely new level. He did this after going 6-6 his first year and losing to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Being a Trojan does not mean that you make excuses or sweep responsibility under the rug. It also does not mean that you are a fair weather fan and you hop off the bandwagon when everything does not go your way. We don’t raise our kids to quit or to jump ship when times are tough. It was a tough loss last Saturday but the test will be how this young team responds.


The Trojans head to the desert to take on the 10th ranked and undefeated Arizona Wildcats on Saturday night. Arizona beat formerly #2 ranked Oregon for the second straight year and they did it by going toe-to-toe and playing physical football. USC has taken 10 of 12 from Arizona, including a 38-31 home win last Oct. 10. USC leads the overall series 29-8.

Cody Kessler threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns against the Wildcats last year and they also rushed for another 249 yards and three scores on the ground. The Trojans had posted five consecutive road victories in the series before falling 39-36 during their last visit Oct. 27, 2012.

Arizona freshman quarterback Anu Solomon has thrown for an average of 407.7 yards and 12 touchdowns in three home games this year. Arizona is 10-2 at home against unranked foes since the start of 2012. The Wildcats are very fast and physical and they will give the Trojans a look of looks on both sides of the ball.

Arizona Stadium will be a hornet’s nest and the Trojans are looking to get back on track with a win against a ranked opponent. There is tremendous talent at USC but Saturday is about taking next steps, playing with pride and establishing an identity. It is time to go to battle and always Fight On!