Arizona State accomplished much with its 62-41 obliteration of USC on Saturday night, chiefly making a statement about its presence in the Pac-12 South race. ASU still controls its own destiny within the conference.
On top of that, ASU (3-1, 1-1 Pac-12) moved back into to the Associated Press poll, landing at No. 22. And though it wasn’t clear at the final whistle, the Sun Devils delivered the knockout blow to Lane Kiffin’s tenure with the Trojans. The coach was already on the hot seat, and the beatdown apparently was the final straw for administrators, who fired Kiffin upon the team’s arrival back in Los Angeles.
But as with any week, the Devils are already looking forward. Before we look ahead with them, here’s one last look back at Saturday’s game.
After a tight first half that saw ASU take a 20-14 lead into the locker room, USC looked like it had flipped a switch, needing just 46 seconds of the third quarter to take the lead. But the Sun Devils took just 68 seconds to regain the lead and then go ahead by 13. First, quarterback Taylor Kelly hit running back D.J. Foster for a 74-yard touchdown on ASU’s first drive of the second half. Then, safety Alden Darby picked off a pass near the sideline and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown, delivering the dagger from which the Trojans couldn’t recover. OFFENSIVE MVP
Quarterback Taylor Kelly. Running back Marion Grice did score four times, but Kelly made it all possible. He led the team with 79 rushing yards, including 40 on a single run that set up a touchdown, and finished 23 of 34 passing with 351 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. The 74-yard completion to Foster was the longest of Kelly’s career. DEFENSIVE MVP
Safety Alden Darby. Something about USC just gets Darby going. He returned an interception for a touchdown against USC last season, as well, and on Saturday he added a second pick-six for good measure. THREE THINGS WE LEARNED
— ASU’s offensive line can get the job done. After two weeks of abuse at the hands of Wisconsin and Stanford, the line had come under fire a bit. Kelly was facing too much pressure. The run game wasn’t working. In Saturday’s game, the linemen made a statement, so much so that Kelly brought them along to stand behind him at the postgame press conference.
“It started off with these five,” Kelly said of Tyler Sulka, Vi Teofilo, Kody Koebensky, Jamil Douglas and Evan Finkenberg. “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.”
USC entered the night leading the Pac-12 in sacks, and while the Trojans got pressure on Kelly a few times, they never took him down. His protection was evident in his final numbers.
As for the run game, there’s still work to be done. ASU’s running backs had only 24 first-half yards. But as ASU’s tempo began to wear on USC’s defense, the run game got going, and ASU finished with 261 yards on the ground.
— The run defense is a mess. For the third straight week, ASU allowed more rushing yards than in the previous game. The Sun Devils gave up 51 to Sacramento State, 231 to Wisconsin, 240 to Stanford and 247 to USC. All the work ASU put in during the spring and fall to improve its defensive weakness has yet to show up on the field.
To be fair, there were mitigating factors Saturday. Starting defensive tackle Jaxon Hood was out with a hamstring injury, so ASU moved defensive end Gannon Conway inside, which Graham admitted was a mistake after the game. Rather than having two of three defensive line starters in their natural spots, ASU had one. Davon Coleman started at end but later switched to the inside spot, with Conway moving back outside.
“Hopefully we get Jaxon back (next week),” coach Todd Graham said. “That hurt us tonight.”
Still, it’s unlikely that Hood’s presence would have made that much of a difference given the way ASU had been gashed the previous two weeks. It wasn’t just defensive linemen failing to stop the run Saturday, either. There’s improvement to be made all around. It’s hard to see ASU winning the South with this kind of run defense all season.
— Taylor Kelly can still move. Through three games, Kelly had just 45 rushing yards. He hadn’t been making many plays with his legs. But the Kelly who extended plays with his feet so often last season showed up Saturday, and his 79 rushing yards led the team.
Moreover, he gave ASU a presence on the ground when its run game couldn’t get going; Kelly had 49 of ASU’s 72 rushing yards at the half. Perhaps Kelly’s slow start on the ground this season had to do with the tough defenses the Sun Devils faced the previous two weeks, or perhaps the coaches have asked him to run less. Either way, it’s clear now Kelly is more lethal when he also makes teams account for his mobility.
WHERE THEY STAND
Despite Saturday’s big win, ASU dropped in most major statistical categories nationally. After five weeks of the season, here’s where the Sun Devils stand:
— Total offense: 15th with 505.0 yards per game, which is fourth in the Pac-12 (up from 43rd) — Total defense: 59th with 385.3 yards allowed per game (down from 35th) — Scoring offense: 11th with 44.3 points per game (up from 35th) — Scoring defense: 80th with 28.3 points allowed per game (down from T-59th) — Rushing defense: 92nd with 192.3 rushing yards allowed per game, which ranks 11th in the Pac-12 (down from T-77th) — Passing defense: 36th with 193.0 passing yards allowed per game (down from 17th) — Fewest penalty yards per game: 15th with 33.75 penalty yards per game (down from 9th)
ODDS AND ENDS
— From 2005-11, ASU went 86 games with scoring 60 points in a game. After Saturday, ASU has now reached the 60-point mark three times since Graham took over (the others: 63 against Northern Arizona and 62 against Navy last season).
— ASU is now 10-0 under Graham when leading at halftime.
— With 12 touchdowns through four games, Grice leads the nation in scoring (18.0 points per game). Three running backs are tied for second with 12.0 points per game.
— ASU shuffled its linebackers a bit in the second half. Redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso had started after strong performances two weeks in a row, but previous starter Steffon Martin took over in the second half and finished with seven tackles, including one for loss. With Anthony Jones struggling at spur, will linebacker Chris Young moved to his old position in the second half, and Grandville Taylor took over at will. The changes may have been in response to what USC was doing specifically, so this week should tell if they are more permanent moves.
— After brushing off speculation last week about his added weight taking away some of his explosiveness, defensive tackle Will Sutton sacked USC quarterback Cody Kessler on USC’s first offensive play. It was Sutton’s first sack of the season, and he looked pretty explosive doing it. Sutton finished with four tackles, two for loss.
— Zane Gonzalez entered the night 4 of 7 on field-goal attempts and went 2 for 2 on the night, hitting from 28 and 21 yards. Gonzalez still has to show he can hit from beyond 40 yards, where he’s 0 for 3 this season, but at least has shown consistency on shorter kicks.
— Alex Garoutte became ASU’s third punter of the season. He punted three times for an average of 38.0 yards and drew heavy praise from Graham, who called him the game’s MVP.
— Darby’s interception return for a touchdown gave ASU a pick-six in four straight games against USC. Darby has the last two, linebacker Shelly Lyons had one in 2011 and cornerback Omar Bolden had one in 2010.
— ASU has a chance to make history next week against Notre Dame. In the history of USC and Notre Dame football, a team has played both in consecutive weeks on 12 occasions. None has ever beaten both. Only two teams have given themselves the chance to win both by taking the first game. ASU played the two teams in consecutive weeks in 1998 but lost both games.
ASU next travels to Arlington, Texas, to take on Notre Dame (3-2) at Cowboys Stadium. The contest, part of Notre Dame’s “Shamrock Series,” is technically a home game for the Fighting Irish. ASU and Notre Dame have not played since the Sun Devils lost to the Irish in South Bend in 1999.