TEMPE, Ariz. — Jump, swat, dive and catch. That’s all it took. Senior defensive end Christian Rector halted the Sun Devils’ final drive with a key interception, stopping the bleeding just in time to secure a 31-26 win for the Trojans.
“I came free off the edge and I knew the ball was going to be coming out,” Rector said. “I saw it come out, tipped it and called game.”
The theme for the USC defense this season has been to hold its offense in the game long enough for a second-half comeback. This game was the opposite.
USC posted its best single-quarter performance in two years with 28 points scored in the first quarter, but there was little offensive production after that. USC only managed to score a field goal in the final 45 minutes.
“Any time we don’t score you’re frustrated,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “We’re going to keep stressing what we believe, self-discipline, doing your job over and over, and execute when we ask you to execute.”
Back in his home state, freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis was stellar in the first quarter, racking up more yards in a single quarter than any collegiate quarterback in the past 15 years. Slovis led the explosive offense with 297 yards, an 88% completion rating and four passing touchdowns in 15 minutes.
“It showed what we can do with this offense when we execute,” Slovis said.
USC opened the game with a first-drive touchdown, as USC has now done in six of its 10 contests this season. USC kept the pressure on later in the quarter, tacking up points on several big plays.
The first quarter saw long touchdowns from both freshman running back Kenan Christon and sophomore wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Christon posted the longest touchdown of his career with a 58-yard reception to extend the Trojans’ lead to 21-7 with 2:36 remaining in the first quarter. Two minutes later, the Trojans were back in the end zone after St. Brown split three ASU defensive backs to ignite a 95-yard touchdown.
“It was a great throw,” St. Brown said. “[Slovis] put it right in the sweet spot.”
Despite the first-quarter success, USC only took a two-possession lead into the locker room.
Arizona State slowly chipped away at the Trojans’ lead, while USC’s offense only managed to put up a field goal on a drive from backup quarterback Matt Fink, after Slovis left the game for a few drives due to leg cramps.
The Trojan defense ended four of Arizona State’s six second-half drives with three-and-outs; the other two resulted in touchdowns. USC limited ASU star running back junior Eno Benjamin to 52 yards and forced two fumbles, as many as he has had all season.
“We wanted to stop the run,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “We wanted to come out here and put our foot down and say, 'the back is not going to run the ball.’”
Penalties plagued USC once again. The Trojans gave away 93 yards on 11 penalties, six of which were false starts. The Trojans now sit at No. 15 for the most penalty yards among FBS teams with 70.11 penalty yards per game.
USC’s win in Tempe means that the Trojans are now eligible for a bowl game. Last year the Trojans missed a bowl game, finishing with a 5-7 record.
“It just goes to show that we stay fighting on and we can win,” freshman wide receiver Drake London said.
The Trojans will stay on the road next week as they travel to the Bay Area to take on Cal at 8 p.m. on Saturday.