USC’s offense can’t find its rhythm as Trojans fall to Arizona State

The Trojans’ well-documented quarterback rotation struggled against the Sun Devils.

A photo of USC quarterback Jaxson Dart.

At some point during most of his media availabilities following USC’s first eight games of this season, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell found a place to sneak in the following wisdom, so obvious in nature yet when uttered with a smirk by a man as stoic as Harrell is cause for reflection and appreciation: “Drake’s good.” He was, of course, referring to junior receiver Drake London.

Well, the proof is in the pudding. And on Saturday night, that pudding tasted like a sputtering USC offense absent its top playmaker en route to a 31-16 takedown by Arizona State.

“It hurts not having Drake,” junior quarterback Kedon Slovis said after the game. “They played a lot of man, and we got exposed tonight.”

That lack of explosiveness at the position — which manifested in zero receivers above 80 yards on the night and just 220 yards through the air — spread its tentacles into the run game as well. A week after senior Keaontay Ingram diced Arizona up for 204 yards, Ingram was held to 54 on 14 carries — one of which accounted for 24 of those yards. As a whole, USC accumulated just 92 total yards on the ground.

All of it — the Air Raid offense that was anything but, and the ensuing struggles on the ground — came amid a backdrop of a quarterback rotation that was inconsistent at best. Slovis and freshman Jaxson Dart were shuffled on and off the field throughout the evening, perhaps to an even greater degree than they were last week.

Slovis ended the night 16-for-28 (57%) with 131 yards and an interception. Dart: 8-for-17 (47%) with 89 yards and a rushing touchdown.

“It’s still the same offense,” Slovis said. “Regardless of who’s quarterback, we have to go execute the plays.”

“There’s parts to it that are difficult, there’s parts to it that are a benefit,” Dart said of the rotation. “I’m gonna go in when I’m told to go in, and Coach is gonna make that decision, and I just try to be ready for every chance I get.”

Dart’s nine-yard touchdown was the only of the game for the Trojans, who found the end zone exactly as many times (one) as did an errant fox at Sun Devil Stadium that briefly halted play in the first quarter. The Trojans couldn’t find any rhythm on offense, culminating in a theme all too familiar to USC fans this year: four field goal attempts from inside the Arizona State 35-yard-line (the ever-elusive red zone was only breached twice), three of which split the uprights.

Once upon a time, USC had actually started gaining some momentum, after back-to-back scoring drives led by Dart put the Trojans up 10-7 midway through the second quarter.

But the lead was fleeting: It lasted all of 64 seconds and never returned. Redshirt senior running back Rachaad White took the third play of ASU’s ensuing drive 47 yards to the house. At the time, it was White’s second-longest run of the season, but by game’s end, it was his third-longest — because he took another carry 50 yards to the pasture for a 24-16 fourth-quarter Sun Devil lead.

White finished the game with 202 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, an average of 7.2 yards per carry. Three other Sun Devils chipped in to round out the evening with 282 rushing yards as a team — the second-most USC has allowed all season (see: Week 4 vs. Oregon State).

But Arizona State’s gaudy offensive numbers were limited to the rushing attack, as junior quarterback Jayden Daniels struggled mightily. The provocateur of said struggles: redshirt freshman safety Xavion Alford, who snagged the first two interceptions of his career.

“I could get on the field and help my team win and ball out for my brothers,” Alford said when asked what he showed on Saturday. “I love playing with those guys.”

Interim head coach Donte Williams said Alford has been stepping up for the Trojans since the Notre Dame game on Oct. 23, a cause for his increased playing time the last few weeks.

“Any time you have a game where you have two interceptions and teams are trying to go at you, that’s big time,” Williams said. “We gotta make sure we capitalize on the turnovers.”

The latter of Alford’s two picks came on a rather impressive diving play that gave the Trojans the ball right around midfield, down only a single point with 1:08 remaining in the third.

Capitalize on the turnover, USC did not.

With Dart taking the snaps, USC responded with the following: incomplete pass, five-yard keeper, incomplete pass, punt. The teams traded three-and-outs once more before White’s 50-yard touchdown put ASU up by eight.

In between that touchdown and White’s third was a drive from Slovis that featured an incomplete pass on first down, a seven-yard completion to sophomore receiver Gary Bryant Jr. on second down and an incomplete pass to redshirt sophomore receiver Kyle Ford on third down.

On the final play of the three-and-out, Slovis had Ford open in the flat but wildly overthrew him, bringing the punt unit onto the field in hopes that USC could get the ball back late with a chance to tie it up.

Never mind that defensive coordinator Todd Orlando couldn’t stop the bleeding on the ASU run game to make that happen. The incompletion was uncharacteristic of Slovis — even considering his occasional struggles this year — and caused many to wonder whether the fluid quarterback dynamic was preventing USC’s signal-callers from finding their footing.

Asked about that after the game, Slovis was non-judgemental, Dart neutral.

“We’ll continue to evaluate everything,” Williams said. “I can’t tell you that it’s the right decision. I can’t tell you it’s the wrong decision. We’re going to make sure we play the best guy, and neither one of them has took the full reins to say that ‘That’s the guy.’ So we’re still looking for answers when it comes to that department.”

The Trojans will continue to look for answers when they take on Cal next weekend for their third- or potentially fourth-to-last game of the 2021 season — but certainly not their fifth-to-last, as Saturday’s loss officially eliminated them from Pac-12 Championship contention.

Until then, the answers remain evasive, because they were nowhere to be found in Tempe.