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USC

With Arizona next, USC can’t afford hangover after crushing loss

Steve Sarkisian
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian looks on during the team’s 38-34 loss to Arizona State on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

USC plays unbeaten Arizona this week, but on Sunday night Trojans Coach Steve Sarkisian was still mulling his team’s wrenching loss to Arizona State on a Hail Mary pass as time expired Saturday night.

“It doesn’t look any better,” he said during a teleconference with reporters.

USC’s defense appeared confused on the final play of the 38-34 loss at the Coliseum, which dropped the Trojans to 3-2 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-12 Conference.

The loss also dropped previously No.16-ranked USC out of the Associated Press media poll Sunday, while Arizona debuted at No. 10.

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Sarkisian said he was not worried about a hangover effect for the Trojans when they play the Wildcats at Tucson, Ariz.

“We’re going to play the No. 10-ranked team in America on national television on Saturday night,” he said. “So the pride factor should be pretty high.”

First, USC must get its defense in order.

Two games after giving up 452 yards rushing at Boston College, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s unit allowed Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici to pass for 510 yards and an USC opponent-record five touchdowns.

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Asked what were his biggest concerns in the wake of those two performances, Sarkisian said, “When it points to the obvious,” adding that against Boston College that meant taking away the run, against Arizona State the pass.

“We know what’s coming,” he said. “We have to be able to stop it.”

USC could not contain Bercovici, a backup making his second start in place of injured Taylor Kelly. That was especially true in the fourth quarter when the Trojans gave up three touchdowns in the final four minutes.

“For whatever reason, the calls weren’t great, the execution wasn’t great and the end result was that they made the plays they needed to make to win the game,” Sarkisian said.

Sarkisian acknowledged that coaches had called two defenses before the final play — “very common,” he said — one to prevent a pass to set up a field goal and another to stop a Hail Mary.

USC safety Gerald Bowman said after the game that some players did not know the call had been switched.

“We ended up being in the right position,” Sarkisian said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get the ball knocked down.”

Freshman AdoreeJackson, who started at cornerback for the first time, was on the far side of the field but saw Bercovici’s pass sailing toward receiver Jaelen Strong.

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“It was a lob,” Jackson said. “So I was thinking it was too much time with the ball in the air and somebody was going to knock it down.”

Sarkisian said safety Leon McQuay III was designated as “the jumper” on the play, but he “ran into” linebacker Hayes Pullard.

Happy homecoming

Homecomings don’t get much better than the one enjoyed by Bercovici, who is from Calabasas and played at Woodland Hills Taft High.

“I know I needed to get like 150 tickets if I could,” Bercovici said. “I had friends in the USC student section telling me they were cheering for me.”

Bercovici’s passing yardage total was 16 shy of the USC opponent record set by Notre Dame’s Joe Theismann in a 38-28 loss to the Trojans at the Coliseum in 1970.

Bercovici’s five touchdown passes broke the record of four that was shared by eight players, most recently former Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker last season.

Quick hits

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Sarkisian said long-snapper Zach Smith suffered a concussion against Oregon State and that USC had been “under the impression” that he would be cleared in time to play against Arizona State. But Smith did not pass a baseline test and was held out. . . . USC’s defeat by Arizona State on a Hail Mary pass was not the first time Sarkisian saw USC lose on a play as time expired. He was Washington’s coach in 2010 when the Huskies defeated the Trojans, 32-31, at the Coliseum on a last-second field goal.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

Correspondent Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report.


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