LOS ANGELES — The Arizona State defense gave USC fits for the better part of three quarters Saturday, even forcing Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley to throw three interceptions for just the second time in his collegiate career.
But even an off day for the heralded quarterback, the Sun Devils could not do enough to pull off an upset in a 38-17 loss to the 19th-ranked Trojans. It was the latest reminder that ASU is still not playing on the same plane as the likes of USC and the other conference powers.
“They came ready to play on defense and offense,” junior safety Alden Darby said. “They just outplayed us today.”
With Saturday’s loss, the Devils were officially eliminated from contention in the Pac-12 South and again failed to become bowl-eligible. But in the process, they got a look at what they hopes to become — along with what they haven’t.
There was more to it than simply getting outplayed in one game. There was a tangible difference in the two programs Saturday, and it was evident before kickoff.
Even for a lightly attended game that started at midday, the Trojans drew more than 80,000 people to the Coliseum. Sun Devil Stadium, on the other hand, has not sold out a game this season — not even a nationally televised matchup with No. 3 Oregon.
Then there was the typical pomp and circumstance of a USC home game, from the costumed marching band to the team’s horse mascot, Traveler, trotting around the field. Overdone as it all may seem, it’s clear USC’s fans are drawn to and appreciate those traditions.
The greatest difference, however, came on the field. The talent disparity between the Sun Devils and Trojans is nothing new but was particularly evident, as USC receiver Marqise Lee caught 10 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown, boosting his candidacy for the Heisman Trophy.
“Playing for a program like that they will develop you and get you playing to your full potential,” Darby said. “I know that for a fact.”
Lee burned ASU badly on an 80-yard touchdown in the first quarter, beating cornerback Deveron Carr and safety Keelan Johnson.
“That was bracket double coverage,” Graham said. “That guy is special, I’m just telling you. He ran right by one and by the other.”
Despite his mistakes, Barkley finished the game 20 for 33 with 222 yards and three touchdowns. And in place of starting running back Silas Redd, Curtis McNeal gained 163 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries.
The ASU offense, meanwhile, put on a lackluster display against a USC defense that had struggled of late, reiterating just how great the talent gap is. Quarterback Taylor Kelly went 19 for 30 with 174 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. Tight end Chris Coyle provided the lone bright spot, with five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.
“We just played really poorly offensively,” Graham said. “We had five takeaways, we turned the ball over four times and did basically nothing offensively. We had a poor plan and did a poor job executing. That was the difference today.”
Though it was perhaps not as great as the difference in talent, there was also a difference in depth. USC simply had more options on both sides of the ball. While ASU takes pride in playing hard to the final whistle, its depth stretches only so far.
The Sun Devils also got a glimpse — albeit a relatively brief one — of what they want to be on defense from their own unit. The defense held USC to 210 yards in the first half, forced five turnovers, had two sacks and notched its fourth defensive touchdown of the season on Darby’s 76-yard touchdown return.
While Graham lamented the overall performance, he was clearly pleased with the progress being made toward the defensive identity he seeks.
“I believe the path for us to compete in this conference year in and year out for a championship is defensively,” Graham said. “So there’s a lot of good signs there from a lot of young men that we’re getting better.”
What his own defense showed and much of what USC, as a program, demonstrated Saturday represented what Graham desires for ASU. But there was nearly as much on display of what Graham does not want for the Sun Devils.
There were his own team’s costly penalties, two of which kept USC drives alive and one of which allowed the Trojans to tie the score at 14-all in the second quarter. There were also ASU’s four turnovers, a number four too high for Graham. USC offered essentially the same, committing a few costly penalties and five turnovers.
There’s another piece of Graham’s grand plan in place, though, and it’s undoubtedly one of the greatest differences from the team that spiraled out of control a year ago: effort. It was evident at times last season that ASU had given up, but Graham’s team has shown no quit.
“Our team plays with too much passion to let us go downhill,” linebacker Carl Bradford said. “I know every guy in that locker room, and we’re just going to keep fighting and coming back until we get those wins. Whatever we have to do, we’ll do it. We’ll just keep fighting and keep pressing.”
That determination comes from a player who’s now been part of an ugly four-game losing streak that has some fans disparaging the Sun Devils. That mindset will never get the kind of appreciation wins do, but it’s an important step in the process.
With a few pieces in place already, ASU must now attempt to close the talent gap, cultivate a stronger tradition and prove itself to an understandably skeptical fan base. The Devils won’t return from Southern California with a win or the bowl eligibility they still seek, but they will come back with a few ideas about their trajectory.
“We are building something special here,” Graham said. “We’ve just got to go to work and keep building.”