USC pulls off thrilling comeback to stun Arizona State in season opener
In a delayed Pac-12 debut defined by the unimaginable, played amid a pandemic backdrop in an empty stadium dotted with cardboard fans, it took the unthinkable to save USC from an all-too-familiar fate against Arizona State.
A late morning marked by sloppy mistakes very nearly slipped away from the Trojans on Saturday. Three times they turned the ball over inside Sun Devils territory. Twice, they turned the ball over on downs in the same spot. As USC lined up for a desperation onside kick, down six points with 2:49 remaining and no timeouts left, its fate seemed assured, its hopes of contention — in the Pac-12 and College Football Playoff — kaput.
But then, an errant bounce on the onside kick fell in front of freshman wide receiver Bru McCoy, and hope was suddenly, inexplicably alive and surging throughout the Coliseum. Seven plays and 45 yards later, a dart from quarterback Kedon Slovis found Drake London in the end zone, capping an extraordinary comeback that ended in a 28-27 opening weekend victory for USC.
Until late in the fourth quarter, USC had done all it could to dash its own hopes. It gave the ball away four times. Its defense broke down with missed assignments. Its offense struggled to find a rhythm, even as it racked up 556 yards. The mistakes felt like an extension of its worst moments from a season ago, even after USC had rebuilt half of its staff and fortified most everything else to avoid such issues.
“A year ago, we may not have won this game,” coach Clay Helton said.
But in an unusual opening game of a strange, shortened season that began with a November rain and a 9 a.m. kickoff, the Trojans were somehow able to outlast mistakes that might have sunk them in the past.
The onside kick recovery alone wasn’t enough to make that possible. On the drive before the recovery, a soaring pass from Slovis toward the end zone was tipped into the air. But as one Arizona State defensive back fell, McCoy, in his first collegiate game after two years of waiting, just happened to be standing in the right place at the right time. He snagged the score easily out of mid-air, cutting the Sun Devils’ lead to 27-21.
On the next play, the ball bounced toward McCoy again, and a sparse USC sideline came alive.
“You could feel the energy pick up as people realized we weren’t out of the game,” McCoy said. “We could still put something together if we really wanted to.”
What they managed after that was a fearless scoring drive with their season already on the line. It began with two huge rushing plays from Vavae Malepeai, who picked up 33 of his 60 total yards on consecutive runs. Slovis, who finished with 381 passing yards and two touchdowns, completed two passes to get USC to the 16-yard line.
Even then, an ill-timed error nearly cost them the game, as right tackle Jalen McKenzie committed a false start, giving the Trojans a fourth-and-nine situation from the 21-yard line.
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.
But USC was unfazed. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell went back to a play he’d already called, one that Arizona State kept under control by dropping as many defensive backs as possible into coverage. This time, Slovis monitored the middle of the field and saw a linebacker move toward London in the slot.
“That’s one of those that you’ve got to pull the trigger,” Helton said. “If you hesitate at all it’s not going to be a touchdown.”
Slovis didn’t blink. He fired a perfect pass at the perfect time to his 6-foot-4 sophomore. London, gripping with his fingertips, came down with it against two defenders.
“There was no safety over top and the rest is history,” said London, who finished with eight catches for 125 yards and the decisive score.
The Trojans don’t look like a team that can contend for a College Football Playoff spot, but Clay Helton’s team showed Saturday it won’t give up.
Those last few minutes of the fourth quarter undoubtedly will skew how history remembers USC’s performance Saturday. Much of the game was defined by sloppy mistakes and inconsistency. Even Helton, ever the optimist, called it “a frustrating day.”
The frustration began on USC’s second drive, as Malepeai reached for a touchdown at the goal line and lost his grip on the football. The fumble was one of three that USC would lose and the first of two that would come on the doorstep of a score.
Two other drives ended with stuffed fourth-down runs, both of which came in Arizona State territory.
Even Slovis was less sharp than usual early on. As USC struggled to push the ball downfield in the first half, some of his throws wobbled out of his hand. Late in the second quarter, with a chance to take a halftime lead, Slovis threw a pass that was intercepted in the red zone.
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In the debut of new coordinator Todd Orlando, USC’s defense deserved some of that blame too. It gave up 258 yards on the ground, including 111 to quarterback Jayden Daniels, who averaged nearly 11 yards per scramble. Daniels did manage just 134 yards on 11-for-23 passing.
“We all made mistakes in that game,” Helton said. “We all took turns, it wasn’t just one guy.”
Those mistakes might’ve doomed most teams. With only six more games, a loss almost certainly would have ended any hopes of USC having a special season.
But at the start of such an unusual campaign, all it took was a few extraordinary twists of fate to keep that faith alive.
“For the chips to fall the way they did, to have the amount of turnovers we had and still be able to come up with the W, it says a lot about the character of this team and how we’ll play moving forward,” McCoy said.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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