Arizona State head coach Todd Graham was probably the last person in Sun Devil Stadium on a sweltering Saturday night to think his team would be out of the game by halftime.
Steadfast in his belief that this 2015 ASU team is the best he’s had in four seasons in Tempe, the Sun Devils haven’t shown it yet. Not by a longshot.
Many of the Sun Devil fans who left by halftime are no doubt feeling hot under the collar.
With two fumbles, two missed field goals, and one interception from the Sun Devils’ offense in the first half ASU (2-2) melted down in its 42-14 loss to No. 19 USC (3-1) in the team's Pac-12 opener.
But even after, Graham was reflecting on what’s still a possibility for the season.
“I remember going home and getting my butt kicked by Stanford (to start conference play in the 2013 season), and everybody -- that's how you respond to this,” Graham said. “If this is the best team that we've had, then we're going to respond and go and figure out a way to go win next week. Half the teams in the conference are 0-1, so that's the way it is.”
Though ASU’s season prospects took a turn south after the team’s 42-28 loss to Stanford in 2013, it rebounded the next game with an explosive 62-41 win against the Trojans at home en route to winning the Pac-12 South.
With Graham’s hope of ASU having similar luck this season, winning the turnover battle is one element ASU needs to get a handle of. Last year, the Sun Devils had a plus-14 turnover margin, which was good for second-best in the Pac-12.
So far this season, ASU has a minus-two turnover margin after its four-turnover night against USC.
“That's been the problem,” Graham said in his post-game press conference. “You know, we work really hard preparing them. We've got some new guys handling the football. Boy, there's a lot of dropped passes. I think we're putting the ball in jeopardy way too much…if you do that, that's why I say that all the time, you're not going to have a chance to win games.”
In addition to the offensive turnovers, ASU’s defense failed to stop USC quarterback Cody Kessler and USC’s potent offense. The Trojans completed 9 out of 15 third downs on the night and in a showing of USC's offensive efficiency, three out of its four offensive touchdowns in the first half came on third down.
With USC's explosive play-making capabilites, ASU’s defense only had two three-and-outs. Two years ago, the Sun Devils were one of the top five teams in the country with an average of 7.5 three-and-outs per game.
Last year, ASU struggled holding teams on third down due to the loss of two pressure generators in Will Sutton and Carl Bradford. Now, it appears the Sun Devils inabilities to get in the backfield have lingered into the 2015 season.
Despite players and coaches stressing all week about the need to get pressure on Kessler, ASU’s defense only had two sacks on the night.
“Eight or nine TFLs and probably three sacks or something like that, and we needed to have about eight sacks,” Graham said about ASU’s defensive performance. “And we missed him (Kessler) back in the back field on one that just broke our back.”
Kessler completely dismantled the Sun Devils defense – especially exposing ASU’s secondary -- throwing five touchdowns on 19 out of 33 passing attempts for 375 yards on the night.
USC’s offense racked up 459 total yards with 379 passing yards and 80 rushing yards. In contrast, ASU had 454 total yards of offense, 182 rushing yards and 272 passing yards, but only managed to put 14 points on the board.
A big reason for the mere two touchdowns was the lack of ball security. While ASU had four turnovers on the night, the biggest turnover came at a time in the game when the Sun Devils actually looked to have a comeback brewing.
After USC went up 21-0 with 3:37 left in the second quarter after a touchdown pass from Kessler to sophomore wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, ASU drove 68 yards down the field to reach the Trojans’ 1-yard line.
With the crowd possibly as loud as it was all night, the feeling was if ASU could go into halftime with at least one touchdown and only a 14-point deficit to overcome, there could possibly be a shot for a comeback.
However, that didn’t happen. ASU fumbled on first and goal from the 1-yard line after a high snap by backup center Stephon McCray and a messy handoff from ASU senior quarterback Mike Bercovici and sophomore running back Demario Richard.
That fumble marked the third straight game for the Sun Devils that they had a first and goal at the 1-yard line and didn’t come up with a touchdown.
Graham said after the game the play wasn’t a read zone and Bercovici was just supposed to cleanly hand off the ball to Richard, but USC defensive tackle Delvon Simmons met Bercovici and Richard at the mesh point of their handoff and caused a fumble that was recovered by USC sophomore free safety Chris Hawkins for a 94-yard touchdown return to make the score 28-0, USC.
“I think that was, obviously, the play of the game,” Graham said. “I mean, we haven't done stuff like that. That stuff's unacceptable, and we as coaches can't have that stuff happening.”
In the ensuing USC kickoff, junior running back De'Chavon Hayes took it out of his own end zone, but fumbled with 19 seconds left in the first half. The Trojans’ took advantage of Hayes’ miscue and scored their fifth touchdown of the night off a 10-yard touchdown pass from Kessler to Smith-Schuster to make the score going into halftime 35-0.
“Those back-to-back, I mean, that was a 14-point swing,” Graham said. “I thought if we had punched that thing in (at the 1-yard line) and scored, I really, really thought because we were dominating the line of scrimmage defensively that we could win the game.”
Going into halftime down 35-0, ASU was shut out in the first half for the first time since the Sun Devils’ matchup against Stanford on September 21, 2013.
With USC’s ability to make the most out of its time of possession and win the turnover battle, ASU was unable to get in any tempo going on offense. The Sun Devils didn’t even score until the 1:56 mark of the third quarter – to make the score 35-7 USC on top-- after sophomore running back Demario Richard scored a touchdown from the 1-yard line. Richard had 14 carries for 131 yards on the night.
After ASU’s first touchdown of the night late in the third quarter, Kessler and USC’s offense went on to score one more touchdown in the game – at the 10:41 mark in the fourth quarter off a 10-yard touchdown pass from Kessler to junior wide receiver Issac Whitney to make the score 42-7. ASU scored its second touchdown of the night off a 4-yard carry by Richard with 7:45 left in the fourth quarter.
Only scoring 14 points and allowing USC to score 42, it didn't take long for Sun Devils defensive deficiencies to be the center of attention. On USC's very first play on the game, Kessler took a deep shot down the middle of the field to a wide-open Smith-Schuster for a 52-yard gain all the way to ASU’s 23-yard line.
In USC’s second drive of the night, Kessler hit sophomore Adoree Jackson out of the backfield for an 80-yard touchdown play on a third and 12 from the Trojans' own 20-yard line.
Then on USC’s second touchdown of the night, Kessler threw a 27-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Steven Mitchell, Jr. to put the Trojans up 14-0 with 11:22 left to play in the first half.
On all three plays, ASU senior safety Jordan Simone was exposed. On Smith-Schuster’s 52-yard catch up the middle, Simone was beat to the boundary. On Jackson’s 80-yard touchdown, Simone tried to make the touchdown-saving tackle on the sidelines, but was late getting to the receiver. On Mitchell Jr.’s touchdown catch Simone took a bad angle and got beat on the play.
“A lot of it is on me, I gotta do better, I got to be a better leader out there and we just got to cover them better,” Simone said. “They beat us on plays and that can’t happen in the secondary.”
Though ASU’s defense struggled to keep up with USC’s explosive offense early on, ASU’s offense didn’t help itself either. After ASU got inside USC’s 30-yard line twice in the first quarter alone, it failed to score both times. Once Richard fumbled at USC’s 23 yard line -- his second fumble in two games -- and the other was missed 47-yard field goal by junior kicker Zane Gonzalez with 7:26 left to play in the first quarter.
The second quarter brought even more struggles for ASU’s ailing offense. Bercovici threw on interception at the goal line on ASU’s first drive of the quarter, Gonzalez missed a 52-yard field goal with 6:16 left to play in the first half, and then the fumble on the first and goal play happened at the one-yard line. Bercovici threw for 272 yards on 23 of 44 passing attempts with one interception and zero touchdowns.
There was no doubt ASU's offense could get the ball moving down the field and have the ability to make explosive plays -- shown in the first quarter by Richard's explosive 61-yard run -- but the Sun Devils self-inflicted wounds ultimately ended up costing them a shot at winning their first conference game of the season.
"Obviously I think the biggest thing for us is when we do get down to the 40, 30-yard line we have to start moving forward into the red zone and start putting up points and as a quarterback that’s my job,” Bercovici said.