Two Trojans quarterbacks are not better than one in an aimless loss at Arizona State
In and out they went, two USC quarterbacks aimlessly trading places, grasping for any semblance of rhythm or hope or something, anything in between. One drive, it was Kedon Slovis. The next, Jaxson Dart. The hope was to get the best out of both. The reality, in an ugly back-and-forth between two imploding Pac-12 foes, was that the Trojans got the best of no one.
Instead, they found themselves wandering aimlessly through the desert night, with seemingly no plan at all in Saturday’s 31-16 defeat at Arizona State. Even as the Sun Devils handed over every possible opportunity they could give the Trojans to win, USC (4-5, 3-4) found itself trading punts and field goals in a high-stakes game of who blinks first.
It was Slovis who ultimately trotted out to the huddle with the Trojans at their most desperate, after a devastating defensive holding penalty extended the Sun Devils’ previous drive and gave way to a 50-yard touchdown run. Down eight with just over eight minutes remaining, Slovis took the reins having played just three snaps during the course of the previous quarter. He said he felt loose, nonetheless, having learned his lesson from the rotation the previous week.
But Slovis lasted just three plays, gaining seven yards, before USC punted. Hope fizzled from there. Whether it can be conjured again this season remains to be seen, but for the fifth time since 2010, the Trojans guaranteed themselves at least a five-loss season. At this rate, with just three games remaining, it’s increasingly unlikely USC can conjure what it takes to scrounge out a bowl bid.
Struggling USC had no answers on offense during the fourth quarter, falling 31-16 to Arizona State Saturday night in Tempe.
It was a fitting finish for an offense that fell flat for most of the night, doomed by a run game that found no room and a rotation that found no rhythm through the air. Even interim coach Donte Williams seemed unwilling to defend USC’s plan to constantly switch up its passers.
“I can’t tell you it’s the right decision. I can’t tell you it’s the wrong decision,” Williams said. “We’re still trying to look for answers when it comes to that department.”
But all that emerged from Saturday’s defeat were more questions, namely how USC plans to proceed at quarterback, where its plan doesn’t seem to be working.
The quarterbacks didn’t help matters. Neither was sharp on Saturday. Both threw interceptions and struggled to adjust without Drake London, whose absence left a gaping void in USC’s aerial attack.
Slovis completed 57% of his passes and threw for 131 yards, both career lows for games he started. Dart was the more erratic of the two, completing 47% of his passes for just 89 yards.
“It’s not like either one of them lit it up tonight and was the clear-cut one above the other,” Williams said. “They both made mistakes, just like we all made mistakes.”
But it was the context those mistakes were made in that raised concerns about where USC is heading from here.
Dart led two consecutive scoring drives in the second quarter, capping the latter with a nine-yard touchdown run. Then, he sat until midway through the third as he dealt with what Williams referred to as “a hand issue.”
Slovis struggled out of the gate but never had the chance to settle in and wound up battling throughout. Still, neither quarterback would criticize the rotation.
“There’s just too many mental errors, too many missed opportunities, missed passes, missed reads,” Slovis said. “That’s on me. I have to get better as we go.”
USC was expected to lean on the run to help ease the offense into life after London, but Arizona State adjusted accordingly. Coming off two of the best performances of his career, Keaontay Ingram was bottled up by an Arizona State front content to stack the box to stop him. Aside from a 24-yard scamper in the second quarter, Ingram had only 30 yards in 13 attempts and spent much of the second half battling through injuries.
He wasn’t the only one, as USC was down two offensive linemen during the game, with left tackle Courtland Ford and right guard Liam Jimmons out.
“We didn’t control the line of scrimmage,” Williams said. “They ran the ball on us and had big explosive plays in the run game, especially when it came to tackling. At the same time, we weren’t able to run the ball when we needed to.”
It was the explosive plays on the ground that ultimately did USC in, as its tackling issues returned in full force against a strong Arizona State rushing attack. Rachaad White ran roughshod over USC’s defense, racking up 202 yards and three touchdowns, the most any back has accumulated against the Trojans this season.
His final explosive run was the decisive blow Saturday. A defensive holding committed on third down by cornerback Chris Steele extended an Arizona State drive, giving the Sun Devils a shot. On the next play, White was off to the races, breathing some life into a season that threatened to go off the rails.
For USC, it was more like a death rattle, just another foreboding sign that its season was slipping further and further in the wrong direction.
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