TEMPE, Ariz. — The magnitude of Arizona State’s 62-41 beatdown of USC on Saturday night should not be overstated. It was, after all, just the Sun Devils’ third win, and their season is only a month old.
But in beating the Trojans, however troubled they may be, the Devils made a statement about the Pac-12 South race and cleared one of the two major hurdles to a division title.
“This does put us in a great spot,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “But again, there are a lot of great teams (in the Pac-12), and we’ve got a long season to go.”
With the win, ASU controls its own destiny in a race that appears down to two teams — UCLA being the other — even at this early stage. The 13th-ranked Bruins (3-0) were off this weekend and open conference play next week against Utah.
“In order to win the South, you’ve got to beat USC, no question about it,” ASU safety Alden Darby said.
That was the message all week in practice: Beat USC and you move to the front of the South race. Now, the Sun Devils don’t have to worry about another team winning or losing to improve their own position; they just have to keep winning conference games.
It stood to reason that the winner of Saturday’s game could very well be set up for a late-season showdown with UCLA for the South’s spot in the Pac-12 championship game. That path is now in front of ASU, though numerous tests remain before a potential South title game in Pasadena. Additionally, UCLA has a difficult path, with road games remaining against Oregon, Stanford and Arizona.
Further, ASU made its statement in knockout fashion, steamrolling a USC defense that was being widely heralded as one of the best in the Pac-12 and perhaps the nation under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
USC entered the night ranked fourth nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 230.5 yards per game. ASU had eclipsed that mark before halftime and finished with 612 yards, its most in a conference game since Oct. 28, 2002 (667 against Oregon). The 62 points are the most ASU has ever scored against USC.
“We didn’t just win; we went out and dominated those guys,” Graham said, adding that offensive coordinator Mike “Norvell did a tremendous job as well. He dismantled a very, very good defense tonight.”
As usual, quarterback Taylor Kelly and running back Marion Grice starred for the ASU offense. Kelly passed for 351 yards and three touchdowns while leading the team with 79 rushing yards. Grice scored twice on the ground and twice trough the air, bringing his touchdown total to 12 through four games.
The defense, though it gave up 41 points — including 20 in the fourth quarter — had its big moments as well. Darby intercepted two passes, including one he returned 46 yards for a game-changing touchdown. Cornerback Osahon Irabor’s interception and a recovered fumble accounted for the other half of ASU’s four takeaways, which resulted in 13 points.
The run defense, however, appears more of an issue than it has all season. USC racked up 247 yards on the ground, making it another game in which ASU gave up more rushing yards than in the previous one. Being without defensive tackle Jaxon Hood, who is dealing with a hamstring injury, and having to shuffle the line contributed, but there is clearly work to be done.
“Give credit to USC,” Graham said. “They had a great plan. They did a lot of things offensively. That’s was the most stressful first half I’ve had in a while.”
ASU led 20-14 at halftime before USC took a 21-20 lead 46 seconds into the third quarter. But the Sun Devils needed just 68 seconds to take a 13 point lead on a 74-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Foster and Darby’s interception return, turning the momentum for good.
ASU’s offense exposed a USC defense that had benefited from a relatively soft schedule early on, having faced Hawaii, Washington State, Boston College and Utah State. For that reason, the Devils’ win must be taken with a grain of salt. It remains a little unclear still how good ASU is.
“A lot of us are from (Southern California), so the switch just goes on and doesn’t go off when we play those guys,” Darby said. “The main thing is we want to challenge each other this week and have that same switch against any other team for the rest of the season, not just when we play against USC.”
ASU now gets a break of sorts from its pursuit of the Pac-12 South title — albeit certainly not a break in terms of competition level — taking on Notre Dame at Cowboys Stadium next Saturday. While a win would be monumental for ASU as a program, the greater emphasis at this point is on conquering the conference.
“We talk about the importance of the Pac-12 conference — those games are more significant than the non-conference games, period,” Graham said. “And obviously the South games are more significant than your games with the North. We need to win the rest of our conference games.”
ASU still has plenty of tests ahead even before the UCLA contest, specifically home games with Washington and Oregon State and road games at Washington State and Utah. Even after the UCLA showdown, ASU might have to worry about the implications of its regular-season finale against rival Arizona.
But on Saturday, ASU made its presence in the South race clear. The path is there for the Sun Devils to take; they just have to do it.
“I walked into the coaches’ locker room (tonight) and I said, ‘We move forward or we move backwards,'” Graham said. “This game was big for our program, and we moved forward.”