Rain almost spoiled USC’s season-opener. Then, Arizona State tried. But in the end, USC somehow escaped its season opener with a 28-27 win.
Despite losing three fumbles, throwing an interception and turning the ball over on downs twice, USC made the plays that counted down the stretch.
USC scored two fourth-down touchdowns over the final three minutes of the game — sandwiched around a successful onside kick attempt — to move to 1-0 on the season.
Bru McCoy came down with a fourth-down touchdown catch on a batted ball with 2:52 remaining in the game to pull USC within 27-21. On the ensuing kickoff, it was McCoy again who got his hands on the ball, bringing in the onside kick. On that drive, USC again faced a fourth down situation with the game on the line. While it won’t exactly replace the original fourth and nine, Slovis dropped back on fourth and nine from the 21-yard line and delivered a strike to Drake London, who somehow hauled the ball in despite terrific coverage from two Arizona State defenders.
The extra point gave USC a 28-27 lead, and one that the defense would make hold up, as Arizona State’s final drive ended with an incomplete pass on fourth down
“As good a pitch and catch as I’ve seen on the fourth down,” head coach Clay Helton said of the touchdown to London. “If you hesitate at all, it’s not going to be a touchdown and Kedon got that ball in there; perfect timing and perfect accuracy there.”
Slovis said it’s a play they run “all the time.” He added that Arizona State dropped a lot of players against it throughout this game, not allowing USC to take deep shots against the looks the Sun Devils threw at them. This was one opportunity Slovis had and he took advantage.
London was succinct in his breakdown of the play.
“The ‘backer pushed out to me. there was no safety over the top and the rest is history,” London said.
With the score 27-13 and fewer than three minutes remaining, Helton said he walked up and down the sideline and told his team that they were going to win the game 28-27, with two touchdowns and an onside kick recovery. He praised his players for going out there and getting it done.
It’s tough to pick a most important play of those final few minutes, with McCoy’s touchdown, onside kick recovery and London’s touchdown all ranking right up toward the top. McCoy said he’d never repped the onside kick recovery before, but when he was told he’d be the guy running down in that position, he said he just went with it.
USC ran 95 offensive plays and piled up 556 total yards — against 61 plays for 392 yards for Arizona State — but the Trojan offense couldn’t get out of its own way to start the second half. USC’s first four drives of the second half resulted in a punt, downs and two lost fumbles. But quarterback Kedon Slovis let his receivers try to make a play on the first touchdown pass — tossing a ball to the corner of the endzone that Amon-Ra St. Brown went up for and ultimately deflected into the waiting arms of McCoy. The second touchdown pass was placed perfectly to London.
Helton said this isn’t a game that last year’s USC would win and he credited the maturity of this team as well as the playmakers for never giving up and stepping up when it mattered most.
Slovis finished the game 40-of-55 passing for 381 yards and those two touchdowns against one interception. Both London and St. Brown went over 100 yards receiving, as London finished with eight catches for 125 yards, while St. Brown had seven for 100.
USC couldn’t get things going consistently on the ground, but two huge runs from Vavae Malepeai on the final drive set up the eventual winning score. The Trojans did finish with 175 yards on the ground, with Malepeai leading the way with 60 yards.
Defensively, Talanoa Hufanga lead the way with 10 total tackles, including nine solo. Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu had USC’s only sack and recorded nine total tackles.
Arizona State’s standout quarterback Jayden Daniels beat USC consistently with his legs, as he rushed for 111 yards on 11 carries. But he never got going with his arm, as he threw for just 134 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-23 passing. Fifty five of those yards and the touchdown came on a short pass that his running back took the rest of the way for a score.
The importance of this win cannot be overstated in terms of how important it is in the race for the Pac-12 championship game. USC likely just beat its most difficult Pac-12 South rival and effectively has a two-game cushion over Arizona State now the rest of the way.
There was some obvious rust that needed to be knocked off and USC has to get a handle on the turnover issues that probably should have cost them this game. But a win is a win this year with so much uncertainty about how teams were going to prepare and how they would come out for Game 1.
“That was a major hurdle for us today,” Helton said of beating Arizona State. “We knew what it means for the conference and to get this one today is huge for us.”
It was a back-and-forth contest for the first half, as Arizona State took a 3-0 lead early and then the teams traded four touchdowns and the Sun Devils went into half time with a 17-14 lead.
Arizona State then added a touchdown and a field goal to go up 27-14 with 11:23 left in the fourth quarter, setting the stage for the USC comeback.