The brown hail came quickly, frighteningly, swirling into Sun Devil Stadium late in the first quarter, turning a football game into a garbage bowl.
The dust storm tossed plastic bags, food wrappers and paper napkins through the sky above USC and Arizona State, everything turning hazy and dirty and then, for Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley, it all went dark.
Just as the dust-up reached its dizzying peak here Saturday night, Barkley was leveled by a thundering sack from Arizona State’s Bo Moos.
It was a metaphor for the moment and a symbol for the night, the Trojans spending their first road game of the 2011 season getting blown around in a hot, dirty and confusing mess.
They were awful. They were wonderful. They were dumb. They were smart. They were lost. They were found. Then they were lost again, committing three second-half turnovers in a horrific breakdown that brought them to their sweaty knees while sending their opponents into a dance and fireworks into the sky.
In the end, the only thing certain is what the Trojans weren’t. They were no longer unbeaten, wildly striking out in their fourth plate appearance of the fall, losing 43-22 to Arizona State.
Yeah, you’re right, it has been a long time, this being Arizona State’s first win over USC in a dozen years. The last time the Sun Devils beat USC in this stadium, the late Pat Tillman was playing linebacker for them.
“It’s great for this football team, their resilience,” said Sun Devils Coach Dennis Erickson. “We just weren’t going to lose.”
Conversely, at times it seemed the Trojans just weren’t going to win, coming back from a 21-6 deficit to grab a 22-21 lead with three great scoring drives, then blowing that lead midway through the third quarter with a lack of textbook tackling and offensive leadership.
Driving for a touchdown deep in Sun Devils territory late in the third quarter, Marc Tyler lost a fumble. Driving deep again in the fourth quarter, Barkley lost another fumble. Then, under great pressure and having little chance, Barkley threw up a prayer that was picked off by Shelly Lyons and returned 41 yards for the game-clinching score.
“We came back, created turnovers, obviously they were key in the game; on two of them, they were going in,” said Erickson, his voice containing no small hint of amazement.
And now the Trojans will be called out, disappointment covering this team like a coating of fine brown dust, hope for their growth at least temporarily stunted.
The guy calling the plays, Coach Lane Kiffin, clearly still has some things to figure out. The guy running the plays, quarterback Barkley, looked like he could use another year before joining the NFL. As for the Trojan defense, well, I’m guessing there are a few Trojan chat rooms today that could tell you a thing or two about a defense that allowed Arizona State to convert half of its dozen third-down plays and never seemed to make a big stop.
“It showed up again,” said Kiffin of the bad tackling. “We got spread out again and we showed up in space. It wasn’t as bad as some points last year, but it showed up again, unfortunately.”
The Sun Devils run to their field through what is now known as the Tillman Tunnel, and the fallen war hero’s inspiration certainly carried them on a night when USC seemed as intimidated and confused as they were during bad road losses last year at Stanford and Oregon State.
“It’s one football game, but to be able to go out there and take down opponent like USC, it’s a very big moment, a springboard for us,” said Brock Osweiler, the Sun Devils quarterback who missed on just seven of 32 passes to often wide-open receivers.
A springboard for some, the shallow end for others. You know how folks always joke about the Sun Devils being the most undisciplined and reckless team in college football? The Trojans committed more penalties -- 10 for 87 yards -- than the Sun Devils -- six for 78 yards -- dumb being outdone by dumber.
“They had a lot more [penalties] than we did, I’ll tell you that,” Erickson said, embracing this rare chance to brag.
The ending of the game should have been clear from the start.
When I stepped out of my car two hours before kickoff, the temperature was 107 degrees. When the game began, it was 98 degrees.
Four plays later, it was at least 107 again, the Trojans fried by a 70-yard touchdown run by Arizona State’s Cameron Marshall. Before halftime, USC was down 21-6 and reeling.
But then the Sun Devils storm ended as quickly as the dust storm, the skies calming, the Trojans seemingly maturing in front of their fans’ red and stinging eyes. USC scored on three consecutive drives at the end of the second quarter and start of the third quarter to take that lead.
Just in time for more chaos. The Trojan defense inexplicably went dizzy again, allowing Arizona State to drive down the field in less than three minutes to score a touchdown on a Marshall three-yard run, giving the Sun Devils a lead they would never lose, because USC could not hold on to the ball.
In a sight that has been all too familiar in the last three seasons, the Trojans trudged away in remorse while their opponents were giddy with relief.
“Lot of weight on your shoulders when you really think about it,” Erickson said. “Eleven years is a long time to not beat somebody.”
That weight has now shifted to other shoulders, like those belonging to Kiffin, whose team needs more consistent discipline -- safety T.J. McDonald committed two personal fouls on high hits with a span of about 20 minutes -- and consistent play calling.
Three times in the first half, the Trojans were deep in Sun Devils territory, but all three times they settled for field goals after Kiffin seemed to outsmart himself with strangely called runs and passes to the short side of the field.
Another set of shoulders bearing weight will be Barkley’s. One week after throwing five touchdown passes against Syracuse, Barkley scuffled under tougher conditions, with the fumble and two interceptions. He missed some guys, made bad decisions on others, and his first interception, in the first half, also led to an eventual Sun Devils touchdown. Barkley looked better early in the second half, but when it counted most, the Sun Devils seemed to shake him.
And, of course, there is the seemingly constant weight that will hang even heavier upon defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the father who sacrificed the end of a brilliant NFL career to his son, only to struggle in teaching his pro system to college kids.
“We’re 3-1, the season’s not over,” protested the son, Lane, late Saturday night. “A lot of teams would like to be 3-1.”
But those teams are all eligible for a bowl game. When you’re not, when you’re USC and every Saturday night is your bowl game, that “one” feels like a ton.