Column: USC may not be playoff-worthy, but beating ASU is something to cherish

USC wide receiver Drake London (15) beats Arizona State defenders to make the winning 21-yard touchdown catch.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The most abnormal season opener in USC history finished with the most improbable of comebacks.

This was magical.

This was exhilarating.

This was a flashback to when Sam Darnold played here.

USC’s 28-27 victory over Arizona State on Saturday offered the latest example of what separates college football from the professional version of the game.


Here, a win can mean both everything and nothing.

USC recovers an onside kick late in the fourth quarter before Drake London scores on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Kedon Slovis to defeat Arizona State.

Whatever possibilities theoretically remain in play because of this triumph, the reality is the No. 20 Trojans almost certainly won’t be in the College Football Playoff this season.

But listen to coach Clay Helton. Observe the looks on his players’ faces.

The victory was important.

In a pandemic year in which nothing was guaranteed — not a season, not a game — these Trojans have a win they will remember for the rest of their lives.

“It reminds you of 2020, doesn’t it?” Helton said. “A year of adversity and finding a way to overcome hard situations. I’m proud of our football team.”

Helton praised his players for their self-belief and composure.

“A year ago, we may not have won this game,” he said. “But a year older, a year more experience, I did not see any panic.”

The sequence started with a play that itself bordered on supernatural, as quarterback Kedon Slovis threw a 26-yard pass into the end zone to a double-covered Amon-ra St. Brown, who tipped the ball into the hands of redshirt freshman Bru McCoy.

USC's Bru McCoy (4) celebrates with fellow receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown after McCoy caught a fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
USC’s Bru McCoy (4) celebrates with fellow wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown after McCoy caught a fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The Sun Devils’ lead was down to 27-21 after Parker Lewis converted the extra point.

McCoy recovered the ensuing onside kick, which gave the Trojans the ball at their 45-yard line with two minutes 49 seconds remaining in the game. They drove to the Arizona State 16, only to be flagged for a false start on fourth down. On what was now fourth-and-nine from the Sun Devils’ 21, Slovis dropped a perfectly weighted pass over two Arizona State defenders into the outstretched fingers of sophomore receiver Drake London for a touchdown.

“Unbelievable throw and catch to end the game,” Helton said.

Especially when considering the circumstances.

Bru McCoy made an impact in his first game with the Trojans, hauling in a pair of big catches to help spur USC to a 28-27 win over Arizona State.

In order for the game to be televised nationally on Fox, kickoff was moved up to 9 a.m.

There were four sections of cardboard cutouts in the Coliseum, but no fans. The USC band and cheerleaders appeared on the scoreboard, but not in person.

And for the majority of the game, the Trojans looked like, well, a team coached by Helton.

They turned the ball over four times. Three of their drives that reached the red zone didn’t produce any points. Their two takeaways resulted in zero points. They committed untimely penalties.

Their defense under new coordinator Todd Orlando resembled whatever it is the Chargers do in the second halves of their games, as Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels ran 11 times for 111 yards.

Kyle Trask threw for four touchdowns as No. 8 Florida beat No. 5 Georgia 44-28, while No. 12 Oregon handled short-handed Stanford 35-14 in an opener.

In defense of the Trojans, this was their first game after a particularly unconventional preseason.

But this was also their fifth season with Helton as their full-time coach. They looked like a stagnated program — until the final three minutes.

Whatever their shortcomings, they should win their five remaining regular-season games and reach the Pac-12 championship game. Oregon, the only ranked team in the Pac-12 North, looks vulnerable.

Winning out, however, wouldn’t assure them of a place in the College Football Playoff. Not only is USC’s schedule short, it’s soft. The Trojans won’t have many, if any, opportunities to change the national perception of where they stand compared to the powerhouse schools in other major conferences. The Southeastern Conference or the Atlantic Coast Conference could very well have two teams in the playoff, with the Pac-12 excluded altogether.

Which doesn’t make this a lost season for the Trojans.

Their victory over Arizona State was a testament to their playmaking talents, as well as Helton’s ability to motivate.

“I tried to stay positive,” Helton said.

President Trump claimed he played a role in resurrecting the Big Ten football season, but it did little to help the conference or his re-election chances.

When USC was behind by a 27-14 margin, he recalled telling his players they would win by scoring two touchdowns and recovering an onside kick.

“I thought the whole sideline stayed positive,” Helton said.

That alone won’t win a national championship.

But on some days, that will produce small miracles such as the one that unfolded at the Coliseum on Saturday, moments that strengthen a university’s sense of community and make a city temporarily forget about a pandemic that’s worsening by the day.