Ten Takeaways: USC

Arizona State struggled on both sides of the football in its 41-20 loss to USC Saturday in Los Angeles. Here's our extended analysis of the game and where the Sun Devils go from here.

1. Things hadn't gone particularly well for Arizona State in the first half but the game remained very close -- a 14-6 lead for the Trojans -- until a catastrophic six minute segment at the end of the second quarter. Eight plays into a drive that had seen the Sun Devils move from their own 20 yard line to the USC 42 there was an unproductive third and 3 in which ASU changed the play at the line of scrimmage with offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins trying to combat a loaded box and man coverage. In the face of a blitz Wilkins threw to junior Ellis Jefferson in one-on-one against USC junior cornerback Adoree Jackson. It was a low percentage play, particularly against Jackson. ASU needed to get into something else or Wilkins needed to go elsewhere with the football. Then on fourth down after a timeout, senior Tim White dropped a ball past the first-down marker that could have been made. Junior running back Demario Richard was open over the middle and had an easier opportunity but White needed to make the play. ASU should have gotten points out of the drive but instead turned the ball over on downs and USC ultimately scored a field goal on its subsequent series.

After that, Wilkins rushed for 8 yards on first and 10 on the Sun Devils' next drive but Richard was called for a chop block that instead made it first and 25. Redshirt freshman Zach Robertson allowed a sack of Wilkins on third down to make it fourth and 35. ASU punted from its own end zone, a mediocre effort from typically reliable senior Matt Haack that gave USC the ball on the ASU 37. On the next play, USC rushed for a 37 yard touchdown that put the Trojans up 24-6. When ASU got the ball back, Wilkins was sacked, injured, and knocked out of the game before the Trojans added another field goal to extend their lead to 27-6 just before halftime. It was a 13-0 spurt in just six minutes that also put ASU's quarterback on crutches and made the game feel totally out of reach before the second half even started. 

2. ASU's offensive struggles in the first half were enormous. Lindsey had to make play calls with the Sun Devils facing second and long (seven or more yards) a nearly-unbelievable 12 times. That's a recipe for certain failure unless its an offense that is paired with an incredible defense. ASU doesn't have that defense this year, so it can't afford to fail on first downs anywhere near as much as it did against the Trojans. ASU faced second and 9, 9, 10, 10, 11, 8, 7, 8, 10, 10, 25, and 10 yards in the first half alone. ASU ran 17 first-down plays in the half and only three of those plays went for more than five yards. Only one of those plays went for more than 10 yards, a 49-yard reception by sophomore Jalen Harvey. Then in the third quarter the Sun Devils didn't mange to get even one first down. 

3. The Trojans bottled up ASU's run game by consistently loading up the box and regularly bringing a safety down immediately before the snap to the box or on a straight blitz or containment pressure assignment. Often, USC had as many or more defenders in the box -- seven or eight -- than ASU had blockers in the run game, and also had the Sun Devils out-flanked so perimeter and stretch runs weren't working. ASU's only real way of getting the Trojans out of this type of defensive approach was greater success with perimeter run replacements, successfully targeting its outside receivers down the field from the boundary to the seam, or completing more passes over the middle third underneath the single high safety. None of those things happened with any consistency and as a result noting changed from the Trojans.

4. After feasting on outmatched defensive backs and inferior schemes earlier in the season, true freshman N'Keal Harry had just four catches for 27 yards against the Trojans. He was going up against Adoree Jackson most of the night, one of the Pac-12's top defensive backs, and as a result, wasn't open much. Wilkins being unable to target Harry more limited the ASU playbook and allowed the Trojans to play the coverages it wanted to. On the other side, the Sun Devils were able to target sophomore cornerback Iman Marshall somewhat, as that's how Harvey had his long catch among several others. But for the most part, the outside wasn't open. ASU had just eight catches to perimeter receivers in the game. When that's paired with 75 net rushing yards on 33 attempts, the number of options available to a play caller shrink significantly. ASU averaged just 4.3 yards per play in the game. That's not salvageable. 

5. Even before he was hurt, Wilkins again took several big shots. Part of this was the result of ASU's offensive line struggling against a USC defense that blitzed more in one half of this game than it had done all season. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast earned a reputation for his exotic blitz structures earlier in his career so this seemed like only a matter of time. It just happened to be the wrong time for ASU. It was bad enough for the Sun Devils that their tackles, Evan Goodman on the left side and Quinn Bailey and Zach Roberson on the right side, were each beaten multiple times on the edge. What made it worse was how the Trojans would bring two linebackers or one linebacker and a safety while dropping another player. It resulted in unblocked players coming cleanly through on at least several occasions even when ASU's running backs were protecting properly. The protections were not as clean as needed, to be generous. So Wilkins was put into some bad situations, but he also exacerbated them with his tendency to tuck and run rather than extend plays to still throw the football. This has been his tendency all year and while the hurdling of players and narrowly avoiding huge collisions is exciting, it's a fraught approach to keeping a quarterback healthy. Ultimately, Wilkins was knocked out. 

6. ASU had zero sacks of USC redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold despite bringing five or more pass rushers at him on a number of occasions. It wasn't as hyper-aggressive as we've seen from the Sun Devils in recent years, but it was still enough for the relative lack of success that it was a glaring. Darnold is a great quarterback in the making. He wasn't sacked, threw no interceptions, extended plays to make smart throws, and only had two passes broken up on a night that saw him complete 23 of 33 attempts for 352 yards and three touchdowns. He consistently went to the right place with the football, even in the face of ASU's pressure. When the Sun Devils have gone up against these types of quarterbacks, with offenses prepared to protect consistently with six and seven, and good receivers, it's been a major challenge. The only time ASU's held up under such circumstances is when it has had great defensive backs, including at safety. 

7. The Sun Devils had more than a handful of key missed tackles against the Trojans, including on explosive plays and/or touchdowns by junior Bandit J'Marcus Rhodes (twice), senior De'Chavon Hayes (on a 67-yard touchdown that put USC ahead 34-6), senior Spur Laiu Moeakiola, and junior WILL D.J. Calhoun. ASU coach Todd Graham said Monday that it's not a lack of effort that is hurting the team but players who are using improper technique. Junior defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood said the Sun Devils practice tackling every day but need to do it to apply it, and not just go through the motions. What's clear is that ASU's biggest question mark positions are the ones that have had the biggest struggles with tackling, primarily at the Bandit and field corner positions. The Sun Devils played four different players at Bandit in the USC game alone, moving from Rhodes to junior James Johnson, a player who hadn't played all season before Saturday, to Moeakiola with junior Marcus Ball replacing him at Spur, and then ended the game with first-game starter Chad Adams. Nothing really worked all that well. ASU could probably use more work in skill development on how to take angles on the football from depth, because that's been a glaring issue this year and last, but a lot of it comes down to players who are just not ready to play effectively at this level as yet. 

8. There is no reason the Sun Devils should not be playing true freshmen Kyle Williams and Robbie Robinson more in the ASU secondary at Bandit and cornerback. If both of those players were starting, it would make total sense at this point. ASU should be devloping for the future, and Williams and Robinson are clearly going to be playing a lot more in their careers, and probably aren't much of a drop-off, if any at all, from the other options we've seen this season at Bandit and the cornerback position opposite sophomore starter Kareem Orr. A strong case could be made that ASU should be playing Orr at one cornerback spot, Robinson at the other, Perry at Bandit, and Williams at field safety. Robinson has done very well in his reps at nickel, definitely better than senior Bryson Echols has in his reps at nickel and corner, including when Echols replaced Hayes for a period against the Trojans. Williams is one of ASU's best athletes already and the type of rangy defender who reminds of former star Damarious Randall in terms of his athletic type. It's time to get Perry, Orr, Robinson and Williams on the field together. Next year's best defense might include Perry moving to Spur -- he's very good as a blitzer and against the run and can cover well for a Spur in man and zone -- with Orr and Robinson at cornerback and Williams and current freshman Chase Lucas at safety. At a minimum, that's a more athletic secondary that can handle all the coverage assignments much better from an athleticism standpoint. 

9. Replacing ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson would not be a panacea that some fans appear to believe it would be. Regardless of whether ASU's been in conservative zone coverages or man, whether it has blitzed or not blitzed, it has struggled in its passing defense this season. Part of that is the types of opponents it has played. Cal and Texas Tech are always going to have big passing numbers. But the biggest issue is that ASU doesn't have enough talent in its secondary to be successful with its aggressive approach to playing defense. It isn't Patterson who is the true defensive architect even though he's now the play-caller. This is Graham's defense, and the same defense that contributed significantly to 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014. Patterson wasn't even at ASU when the Sun Devils signed exactly zero high school defensive backs -- excluding Moeakiola, who is really a hybrid safety/linebacker -- in the 2012 class and only one junior college player who never saw the field. Patterson also wasn't at ASU for the 2013 class, when the high school defensive backs signed were James Johnson, Jayme Otomewo, Will Earley and two-way athlete Ronald Lewis, who tried cornerback, none of whom is a starting caliber Pac-12 defensive back. Patterson didn't join ASU's staff until after signing day in 2014, when the high school recruits added to the secondary were Perry, Adams, Das Tautalatasi, DeAndre Scott and Tyler Whiley. Over a three class period (2012, 2013, 2014) the Sun Devils signed just one high school player who has been a quality starter in their secondary. Succeeding from that personnel dilemma in the broader construct of this schematic philosophy is nearly impossible. Patterson inherited that, and he also has to work under the construct of what Graham mandates, because it's ultimately his defense. 

10. With backup Brady White in the game after the Wilkins left leg injury at the end of the first half, ASU failed to get a single first down in the third quarter. The Sun Devils went three-and-out on four consecutive drives and had just 11 yards of total offense in the quarter. White threw two passes that were touched first by USC players, either of which could have been intercepted. The first was a linebacker zone drop by Nwosu that White appeared to not identify. The second was a pass behind intended target Tim White over the middle. White made several really nice throws though, with Harry dropping one pass that would have been a first-down, and having another hit his arm when he didn't get his head turned around to make a play.  Things got better in the fourth quarter for White but by then it was deep in garbage time. He finished 6 of 13 for 80 yards and one touchdown. It was a difficult situation to be trust into, on the road for the first time in meaningful action at the Coliseum with the Sun Devils completely anemic on offense and trailing by three touchdowns. White appeared very unflappable, which is an important trait, but also didn't do enough to warrant glowing reviews. He may get another opportunity to do so against UCLA this week. 


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