It was only fitting that a Pac-12 opener that started at 9 a.m. and took place in a year like 2020 was based in complete chaos.
USC’s 28-27 win over Arizona State featured many twists and turns, but no part was more surprising than the Trojans' miraculous 13-point comeback in the final three minutes. After a tipped fourth-down pass landed in the hands of wide receiver Bru McCoy for a touchdown, the redshirt freshman disrupted ASU sophomore wide receiver Ricky Pearsall on the onside kick, allowing redshirt freshman safety Max Williams to recover for USC.
It was a huge performance for McCoy, who made perhaps the two biggest plays in his first game action in nearly two years after redshirting last season with an illness.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to play a game, so obviously there were a lot of jitters heading into the game,” McCoy said. “But by the end of the first quarter, it just felt like I was playing ball again, and I was excited to keep playing and executing.”
The Trojans marched down the field but had to rely on another fourth-down touchdown, this time a 21-yard strike from sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis to sophomore receiver Drake London — who led the team with eight receptions for 125 yards — down the middle of the field. Slovis said USC ran that play multiple times earlier in the game but that ASU’s drop coverage prevented deep throws.
“When they gave us the look that they did [on the touchdown], it’s something that we rep a lot in practice and [offensive coordinator Graham] Harrell harps on my feet a lot,” said Slovis, who completed 41 of 55 passes for 381 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. “So there it was three [steps] and a hitch, ball and Drake did the rest for me.”
The string of miracles showed a development for USC in being able to win games it probably shouldn’t; as Helton said, last year’s team probably doesn’t win this game. It also hid the fact that the Trojans were outplayed for nearly the entire game.
Most notably, USC was outmatched on both lines, conceding 258 rush yards and allowing Slovis to be pressured repeatedly. The Trojan offense also missed crucial opportunities due to short yardage failures; redshirt senior running back Vavae Malepeai lost a fumble on the goal line after USC recovered a muffed punt in the first quarter, and a later drive was lost when redshirt sophomore running back Markese Stepp was stuffed on fourth-and-one in ASU territory.
Those weren’t the only silver platter opportunities the Trojans failed to capitalize on, nor the only times they shot themselves in the foot. Slovis threw a red zone interception just before the half after USC recovered a Sun Devils fumble in plus territory. Stepp and redshirt senior wide receiver Tyler Vaughns both lost second-half fumbles. USC running backs were stuffed behind the line on multiple third- and fourth-down attempts.
“It was a frustrating day because the ball was moving but you’re making enough mistakes, offensively, turning the ball over three times in the red zone and coming away with zero points,” Helton said after the game. “It really gets frustrating, but I commend our team.”
USC was energized throughout the game despite the frequent miscues, but more importantly, the team stayed under control even down two possessions with a few minutes left.
“When it was 27-14 I was going up and down the sideline saying ‘Guys, I’m looking at it right now, you’re going to win this game 28-27,’” Helton said. “I thought the whole sideline stayed positive, didn’t panic, stayed poised and played situational mastery football.”
The Trojans' defensive pursuit was inconsistent; the group started the game strong before allowing open-field touchdowns of 25 and 55 yards in the first half. Daniels consistently escaped the pocket for huge third down conversions with USC unaware due to man defense, leading to 124 rushing yards for the signal-caller.
However, Helton said the Trojans went to man for the final four plays of the team’s game-clinching stop and that that was what he was most proud of given the group’s struggles. The fact is that the defense did enough against Daniels to win, especially in the pass game where Daniels completed just 11 of 23 attempts for 134 yards and a touchdown.
“Jayden is a great player,” redshirt junior safety Isaiah Pola-Mao said. “Next game I think we need to start a little bit faster, but he’s just a great player and I think we stepped up to the challenge.”
Perhaps the takeaway in a normal season would be that the Trojans can’t play that poorly and expect to win anything, and that’s still true. But Arizona State was likely the best team USC will play until a potential Pac-12 Championship Game, so the Trojans do have time to, as McCoy and London put it, work out the kinks.
Up a game on their biggest divisional rival and with the tiebreaker in hand, USC’s path to that conference championship is fairly clear. The feeling of happiness at their current situation should slightly outweigh the feeling of doubt about their luck in getting there.
“I told the guys in the locker room that this is one of those games, I don’t care how old I get, I’ll never forget this game, I’ll never forget this team,” Helton said. “For all the things they’ve dealt with in 2020 and then the fighters that they are … We wanted to have the opportunity to play the game we love. We got that opportunity, and we found a way to make the most of it today.”