LOS ANGELES -- Arizona State lost only one football game on Saturday, but it felt like more.
Maybe it was the Sun Devils' sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins watching the second half on the sidelines with the aid of crutches and with his left foot in a walking boot. Perhaps it was junior running back Demario Richard sitting on the exercise bike for much of the game with an apparent ankle injury.
It also could have been the pestering tendency for the Sun Devils to miss on tackles and breakdown on defensive assignments. It's a theme that began last year and has continued through the team's first five games of 2016.
Then there was the inability to run the football on first down, which ASU head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey candidly admitted following the 41-20 thrashing they took at the hand of USC. That wasn't the case earlier this season, but it was tonight.
A silver lining? There wasn't much of one on this night other than the consistently reliable field goal kicking of Pac-12 record-breaker Zane Gonzalez.
It was all bad for the Sun Devils. They managed to navigate through the month of September unscathed at 4-0 only to crash into a brick wall in the form of the Trojans on the first day of October.
Now they're going to have to put the pieces back together, or at least figure out if that can be done. That's going to be more difficult with Wilkins' status very uncertain moving forward and a lot of the team's tendencies starting to look more like blemishes.
ASU junior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood seemed to think it's not only fixable, but it's the finer details that are the problem.
“For us it’s just the little things," Smallwood said. "Just getting the little things right. We just have to be disciplined in our assignments. USC, they came out to play and were the better team. Nothing it takes from them but as a defense and as individuals we have to put in the work to get better to get our assignments done and make sure we get our assignments done better than anyone else in the country.”
It didn't feel like the problems were of the small variety. This was a game that saw the Trojans almost toy with the Sun Devils at times. All seven of USC's scoring drives took less than three minutes. For the second year in a row they scored 35 unanswered points against ASU. Last year it was a 35-0 halftime score. This year, after a 7-6 start that seemed to indicate a close game could be in store, the Trojans opened up the throttle, eventually leading 41-6 before ASU had a couple meaningless fourth quarter touchdowns.
USC star junior receiver Juju Smith-Schuster even memorialized the occasion by having one of his teammates pretend to take a photo of his celebration after the first of his three touchdowns.
Smith-Schuster must love playing the Sun Devils at this point. He had seven catches for 123 yards on the receiving end of redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold after going over 100 receiving yards on five catches in the team's 42-14 win in Tempe last year.
ASU won't want to play Smith-Schuester again and probably won't have to, as he's likely headed to the NFL Draft after this season. But it won't remember him fondly.
The punctuation mark by Smith-Schuester came early in the third quarter. A second-half team through the first four games of the season, the Trojans let it be known pretty early in the third quarter that tonight wouldn't see another ASU come-from-behind win. Darnold threw a quick hitch to Smith-Schuester on the perimeter and ASU senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes came up to make what was a relatively routine tackle. He whiffed. Just like the Sun Devils did collectively in the game.
“We do tackling drills every day," Smallwood said. "Tackling drills every day in practice and coaches put emphasis on it every day. As individuals we don’t need to just do it to do it. We need to do it to apply it and it’s just another one of those little things. The coaches do a good job. We do tackling drills every day. We just need to apply it to the game.”
Hayes had been replaced earlier in the game by senior Bryson Echols after another missed opportunity. The two ended up trading places several times, but neither was able to get any real traction. Graham seemed perplexed by it all.
“That’s amazing," Graham said. "A hitch route goes to the house like that and you know that’s very poor tackling on that play.”
ASU coaches were so unhappy with their defensive play they used four different players at Bandit safety, with junior starter J'Marcus Rhodes replaced by junior James Johnson, who hadn't even played this season while recovering from a knee injury. That didn't work, and starting senior Spur Laiu Moeakiola was moved to Bandit and junior Marcus Ball entered the lineup at Spur. By the end of the game, junior Chad Adams, who was the team's starter at Bandit to begin the season, was back at the position.
As bad as things were on defense, it was just as dismal a performance by the Sun Devils on offense. They were in second and long situations 19 times overall in the game and 12 in the first half alone. Getting even a few yards on first down seemed to be a massive chore.
“Didn’t run the ball good enough," ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. "Got to give credit to USC. I thought they did a very good job and kept us kind of off balance all night and kind of you know did a really good job. We are a run team, a run play-action team and we couldn’t get that going and you know just disappointed. Just disappointed we didn’t play any better and that’s on me and just got to go to work and go on to the next one.”
To top it all off the Sun Devils' offensive line seemed unprepared to handle USC's blitzes, which were much more frequent this week than earlier in the season, and there were more dropped passes than any game to this point.
“I wish I knew," Lindsey said. "It was young players. We do have a young team on offense. I’ve said that all along and tonight wasn’t our night. Didn’t make enough plays.”
They're about to get even younger, perhaps. Redshirt freshman backup quarterback Brady White could be called on to start against UCLA next week if Wilkins can't. ASU went three-and-out on White's first four drives of the second half.
The Sun Devils may also have to move toward playing younger guys on defense. Freshman Kyle Williams could become more of an option at Bandit after the Sun Devils' struggles at the position, and at cornerback, it may be time to play freshman Robbie Robinson more as Hayes and Echols have each showed serious flaws and are running out of eligibility.
“We will respond like every team," Graham said. "That’s like how we will respond. This is, you got to bring it every week. You can look around the Pac-12 and see you are going to get beat and you can get beat fast and you look around at the character our guys showed. They never gave up, but I’m proud of Brady coming in for Manny. I thought that was a very difficult situation, but I know, I think our guys have proven, we’ve been behind in the three of the first four games I think and we haven’t had it easy all year long. We are a young football team and we did not respond very well on the road and I know how tough that is. They will bounce back and go to work. They have to. They have no choice. It’s our first loss and these kids I think have shown the character we have in the three games that we’ve come from behind so the difference is it’s not getting any easier. The opponents in the Pac-12 are really difficult and you just can’t play like that.”null