Focus on the football and take it away

USC did exactly that in creating four takeaways that turned a competitive game at Arizona State Saturday into a 42-14 romp.

There was a lot to like, obviously, in USC's 42-14 romp over Arizona State Saturday in a game that started in 97 degrees of blistering desert heat.

But the heat USC (3-1, 1-1 in the Pac-12) brought in forcing four takeaways after going two straight games with none was all the Trojans wanted to talk about after a Pac-12 South opener that was a must win and then some after UCLA smoked Arizona down the road in Tucson.

Steve Sarkisian, Cody Kessler and Adoree Jackson post game press conference:

The Trojans simply could not afford an 0-2 Pac-12 start. Not the way Utah also handled Oregon on the road.

And as calm as Steve Sarkisian had wanted his team to be after the embarrassing upset home loss a week ago to Stanford, there was no calmness on a USC sideline that earned a warning for celebrating the wild final minute of the first half. That's where the Trojans fell apart a week ago.

Not this week. On top of a Chris Hawkins' 94-yard scoop and score reminiscent of Jawanza Starling at Notre Dame in 2011, USC followed up by recovering another fumble -- this one caused by Quinton Powell -- inside the 5-yard line on the ensuing kickoff with Soma Vainuku swooping in to do the honors.

What should have probably been a 21-7 USC lead at intermission was now 35-0. And Sark was telling himself that 30-minute rant he went on Friday night going into the minute details of how to pick the ball up when the turnover happens -- well it actually happened. And it worked.

"Like a dream," safety John Plattenburg said of the disguised Cover 2 that ended up with freshman corner Isaiah Langley in front forcing ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici, who put the dagger in USC with three TD passes in the final four minutes a year ago including the legendary "Jael Mary," lofted it over Langley and right into Plattenburg's hands.

"Bottom line is we turned the football over four times and that absolutely killed us," ASU coach Todd Graham said as his Sun Devils dropped to 2-2 (0-1 in the Pac-12) in front of a late-arriving, early-leaving crowd of 61,904. "They did a great job of executing. I mean, we got them in third down and long over and over and over again early, and you've got to give them credit. They did some good things moving Adoree' around, and we knew that they're very, very fast."

Speaking of third downs, USC converted 10 of 16 -- more than in all three previous games.

And speaking of Adoree', it was the kind of night when there wasn't agreement on his favorite play. Adoree' liked his 45-yard screen pass "when I caught it and ran down the sideline and Steven [Mitchell] was pushing me and I was just carrying the pile of people. That was probably my best one, just as far as being out there on the offensive side of the ball."

Kessler didn't agree. "I would probably say that [80-yard] touchdown pass was my favorite of his," Cody said of the game's opening score. "Like coach said, that's what we do on offense: We find ways, whether we use them or try to disguise them . . . And the coolest thing for me is when he comes out on the field, everyone on the defense is all, 'two is in, two is in' -- everyone is aware of it on defense and that just speaks volumes on the type of player he is."

With 184 yards of total offense (three catches for 131 yards, two punt returns for another 53), ASU still had no answer for Adoree', the part timer on offense and special teams. "He's really special," Su'a Cravens said. "He should be on every Heisman list."

If USC, now that it's found the way to do so in Game 4, can keep getting him the ball in space, Adoree' will be.

If there was a negative, or a couple of them, it had to be USC's inability to run the ball against the best defense Graham says he's had here at ASU. "I felt really good early because I knew they couldn't run the ball, and we were able to handle that," Graham said. "Just their speed and athleticism, we left a couple of critical errors, left some guys uncovered."

And that was it. Mitchell pretty much walked in on a 27-yard quick screen where all he needed was Isaac Whitney blocking for him. Then Whitney was returned the favor on a 10-yard crossing pattern -- USC's only score in the second half.

And of course, JuJu Smith-Schuster was his usual self with two exceptional TD catches among his five for 103 yards.

And Kessler, while he wasn't perfect with his first interception in 103 passes dating back to the last 12 of 2014 -- on a play where Mitchell should have stopped for what would have been an easy catch where Cody threw the ball, he did complete 19 of 33 for 375 yards and five touchdowns.

But even more encouraging, on a night when Arizona State played just three freshmen, USC played 13 with five true freshmen playing together including linebackers Cameron Smith, Osa Masina and Porter Gustin on the same line in front of defensive backs Iman Marshall and Marvin Tell And one of them, Masina, had USC's first fumble recovery score of the season on a 46-yard scoop and score.

In summary, Sark said, his team had "a cool, calm focus in a game that was pivotal, critical."

So what if the total yardage has USC up by just one, 455 to 454, or those 10 penalties for 91 yards. Or that USC managed to average just 2.4 yards on 32 carries to Arizona State's 5.2 on 35.

This is one of those games you just point and say "Scoreboard," and move on. There are 11 days to get ready for Washington at the Coliseum and then things get really tough, Sark said.

At Notre Dame, Utah at the Coliseum and then at Cal. Not going to be easy. And USC must get better. Must clean things up from this game. Must be able to run the football. And stop the run.

But with these players on offense, this explosiveness and Kessler able to get them the ball quickly, and increasingly able to run it himself with that 21-yarder for a first down a back-breaker, Graham said, USC will have a chance every time out.

"They move the football on everybody they play," Graham said. "You can't give up big plays to them."

Arizona State did. On offense and defense. If USC gets those, even when it has so much work to do running the ball and playing penalty-free, it has a chance.

If it can win the turnover battle in a big way, as it did on this day, it's probably not a matter of chance.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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