The Sun Devils (3-1, 1-1) and the Trojans (3-2, 0-2) each exchanged jabs in the first half, with three total lead changes ending up with a 20-14 halftime lead for Arizona State.
On the opening drive of the second half, USC regained the lead yet again behind a three play, 75-yard drive capped by a 24-yard run from redshirt sophomore running back Tre Madden.
The ensuing drive saw Arizona State score two plays later on a 74-yard pass to D.J. Foster streaking down the seam. From that point, the Devils stepped on the gas and never looked back, ending with a 35-20 run over the last 28 minutes of the game.
Aside from a couple of defensive mishaps and late touchdowns given up, Arizona State played a dominant second half en route to their first conference win of the season. Needless to say, coach Todd Graham was pleased with his team’s performance.
“Really proud of our football team,” Graham said. “Sitting here watching that offensive line, they’re the group that I recognized with the team after the game, did a phenomenal job. I challenged them, we knew we could run the football; obviously we are playing good people. That’s a really good defense tonight that we went up against. And our guys dominated.
“We didn’t just win, we went our and dominated those guys. That was impressive, I was impressed with our team…I think obviously the things that were different this week was you see that I really have great confidence in our offense. If we can get our tempo going, and we don’t turn the football over or have negative plays we are going to score. I think we showed that and the difference tonight was we got the kicking game fixed.”
The kicking game and special teams as a whole were a main focus for the Sun Devils after brutal performances in their previous two games. Against the Trojans, ASU was exponentially better, and according to Graham, redshirt junior kicker Alex Garoutte led the way.
“Special teams wise, I think we got a lot of things fixed,” Graham said. “Really proud of Alex Garoutte, unbelievable job on kickoff, did a great job punting for us tonight. Really proud of him, proud of the guys and the effort that they displayed. Alex is MVP in my mind.”
While the defense was far from spectacular on the night, ASU’s unit made arguably the biggest play of the game just two minutes into the second half. The Sun Devil offense had just scored off of the big play from D.J. Foster, and was up by six. On the ensuing drive, USC quarterback Cody Kessler dropped back on second down, looked to his right and threw to what he thought was his tight end, uncovered on the right sideline, but senior safety Alden Darby swooped in, picked the ball off and took it to the house for six.
In a matter of a minute, Arizona State was on the better end of a 13-point swing, effectively putting the Devils in the driver’s seat for the rest of the game.
“It was huge, absolutely huge,” Graham said of Darby’s interception. “We talked about that play. If you remember early in the first half they were lining up in a pro slot formation, they were motioning their tight end back weak so they could have him matched up on our WILL linebacker. And they hit us on a wheel route early on a scoring drive, I think it was in the first quarter.
Alden is just really, really good and can really comprehend things and did a great job of playing bracket (coverage) there and big time pick six and a great return I mean he was right on the sideline. I thought that was the play of the game.”
Where the defense was opportunistic, the offense was steady and dominant. Taylor Kelly threw for 351 yards with three touchdowns and had some key gains with his feet throughout the game. Marion Grice continued his stellar Sun Devil career, as he reached the end zone four times against the Trojans, his second four-touchdown performance this year.
“It doesn’t even look like he’s trying,” Graham said of Grice. “He has a weird style…he is just phenomenal how he just has this way of eluding people very smoothly to get to the end zone. That’s amazing how many touchdowns he’s scores. He doesn’t ever get excited or anything, he just scores touchdowns.”
The offensive line looked like they were getting out to an anemic start after only producing 24 yards rushing on eight carries, but a tremendous final three quarters made up for that, tenfold. The Sun Devils finished the game with 261 yards rushing, and maybe more importantly, no sacks given up to a defense in USC that came into this game leading the Pac-12 in sacks (16).
“Great job by the offensive line, I thought our run game was outstanding,” Graham said. “261 yards rushing against USC, that’s pretty good.
“Coach Norvell did a tremendous job as well. He dismantled a very good defense tonight…we have got a lot of weapons on offense and if we can establish the run game like that we are going to have a hard time stopping that.”
This game was a great barometer for this Sun Devils’ team, and really would dictate how their season would go, something Graham new before the game.
“Right before the game I went into the coaches’ locker room and said, “We move forward or we move backwards,’” Graham said. “This game was big for our program and we moved forward…great night to be a Sun Devil.
“We talk about the performance in the Pac-12 conference, those games are more significant than the non-conference games, period. You have to win; if you win every one of your South games you’ve got a great chance to be in the Championship game. This does put us in a great spot.
“Got a long season yet to go, we’ve got to come back and get prepared to play a very good Notre Dame team on the road in Dallas.”