Calm, cool Trojans collect an easy win against Arizona State
Gary Klein and Lindsey Thiry discuss USC’s 42-14 victory over Arizona State from Sun Devil Stadium.
Afternoon temperatures soared above 100 degrees, and it was still 97 at kickoff Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
It will be noticeably cooler — and extremely comfortable — in Los Angeles this week for USC and Coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff.
USC rebounded from last week’s loss against Stanford with a dominating 42-14 victory over Arizona State that rekindled hope for a Pac-12 Conference title and eased the pressure on Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
The No. 19 Trojans improved to 3-1 overall and 1-1 in Pac-12 play by overwhelming Arizona State in all phases.
Sarkisian intimated that the Trojans did not overreact to the Stanford defeat.
“The natural assumption was, ‘The sky was falling—what’s wrong with us,’” Sarkisian said of talk outside the team. “There was really a cool, calm focused team that was ready to go play.”
Quarterback Cody Kessler passed for five touchdowns — four in the first half — while Adoree’ Jackson showcased his talent as a receiver and return specialist and a defense that had been starved for turnovers came up with numerous big plays as the Trojans won here for the first time since 2009.
During Friday night’s team meeting, Sarkisian delivered what he described as “a 30-minute barrage of how to create turnovers.”
The Trojans responded by forcing four, including three fumbles.
“We really took that to heart,” said safety Chris Hawkins, who returned a fumble 94 yards for a touchdown.
The rout was the perfect way for USC to go into next week’s open date before playing host to Washington on Oct. 8.
Sarkisian, who left Washington after five seasons to coach the Trojans, will go into the game riding a wave of momentum after earning his first victory in five games against Arizona State.
Saturday’s outcome was a marked contrast to USC’s last two visits here, both of which ended in embarrassing losses. The 2013 rout cost former coach Lane Kiffin his job.
Sarkisian and Wilcox also came here under fire.
And after a frenetic first few minutes that featured Kessler’s first interception of the season, the Trojans were teetering again.
But USC players showed poise and made huge plays on offense, defense and special teams against an Arizona State team that opened the season regarded as one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 South Division.
“I knew our team was going to come out and make plays and respond from last week,” Kessler said. “It was really cool to see.”
Kessler connected with receivers Steven Mitchell Jr., JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jackson for first-half touchdowns. He found receiver Isaac Whitney for a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Kessler finished 19 of 33 for 375 yards.
And a Trojans offense that struggled mightily on third down in their first three games converted an impressive eight of 10 in the first half against the Sun Devils.
Jackson, who did not touch the ball on offense against Stanford, took a short swing pass from Kessler and turned it into an 80-yard touchdown that gave the Trojans a 7-0 lead. He also set up a touchdown with a spectacular 45-yard catch and run.
“Just making plays for my team and get the momentum going,” Jackson said.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was USC’s defense.
With some USC fans calling for his job, Wilcox had described the unit’s performance against Stanford as “unacceptable” and had said he expected the Trojans to respond with better play against the Sun Devils.
Last year, Arizona State defeated USC with a fourth-quarter rally and a Hail Mary pass by quarterback Mike Bercovici as time expired.
The defense and special teams units made any hint of that possibility moot Saturday.
Safety John Plattenburg intercepted a pass and the Trojans forced three first-half fumbles. Lineman Delvon Simmons knocked the ball loose on the play that Hawkins turned into a touchdown for a 28-0 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, linebacker Quinton Powell forced a fumble that Soma Vainuku recovered to set up Kessler’s second touchdown to Smith-Schuster and a 35-0 halftime lead.
“Obviously, self-destructed right there before the end of the first half,” Arizona State Coach Todd Graham said.
USC neutralized Bercovici, who burned them for 510 yards and five touchdowns last season.
On Saturday, the senior from Calabasas was 23 of 44 for 272 yards and no touchdowns. He was sacked three times.
Demario Richard rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns for the Sun Devils, who fell to 2-2 overall and 0-1 in Pac-12 play.
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