LOS ANGELES -- Though the famous Hollywood sign was visibly perched in the backdrop, Arizona State needed no special effects to awe its traveling party with yet another jaw-dropping loss.
The Sun Devils have become masters of high drama, seemingly one-upping themselves time and again with epic feats of heartbreaking failure. All told, they've lost nine consecutive games decided by five or fewer points dating to Nov. 13, 2008, a 23-20 overtime loss to UNLV.
But Saturday's showing, which saw senior kicker Thomas Weber miss 42-yarder with 1:34 left and the Sun Devils trailing USC by what ultimately would be the game's final score, 34-33, may have been their tour de force.
ASU took a 33-29 lead at the 6:59 mark of the fourth quarter on a touchdown pass from senior quarterback Steven Threet to sophomore receiver Jamal Miles. But after its coach, Dennis Erickson, considered a 2-point conversion attempt, Weber had his PAT blocked and returned by USC's Torin Harris for two points, making the Sun Devils' lead a precarious 33-31.
USC (6-3; 3-3) responded with a go-ahead field goal at the 3:06 mark to take a 34-33 lead following a 9-play, 68-yard drive, and ASU came right back by moving the ball 49 yards on eight plays to the Trojans' 24-yard-line before Weber's missed kick, which flew wide left.
"About as crazy as they get," Erickson said. "It was a back-and-forth see-saw football game. A play here, a play there, you can think of a thousand things in a game like that that made a difference when it gets down to that point. Obviously the key play was the blocked extra point for two points, that's a three point turnaround right there. That was the difference in the football game, to let that happen was totally ridiculous."
The loss left ASU at 4-5 overall and 2-4 in the Pac-10, crippling its chances for a bowl appearance, which would require a 3-0 finish to the regular season with games against Stanford, UCLA and at Arizona remaining.
"We have resiliency, we've had resiliency all year," Erickson said. "Our resiliency is really going to be tested next week. Coming back after a game like this, those are hard. We had a chance to win it and didn't make the plays. Our guys fought back and had an opportunity to win it at the end and didn't make the kick."
The Sun Devils trailed by a 22-7 margin early in the second half after a poor throw by Threet was intercepted and returned 74-yards for a touchdown by Malcolm Thomas and USC converted a 2-point try.
Threet responded by immediately guiding the Sun Devils on a 8-play, 74 yard drive which ended in junior receiver Gerell Robinson's second touchdown reception of the evening to tighten it to 22-14, but the Trojans found the end zone again within three minutes to go up 29-14 with 4:39 left in the third quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, senior LeQuan Lewis fielded the ball two yards deep in his end zone and proceeded to break several tackles early in a 100-yard touchdown return, bringing ASU back within a score and 2-point conversation at 29-21.
ASU then took its 33-29 lead on an overthrown pass by USC quarterback Matt Barkley which was tipped by a receiver directly into the hands of junior ASU cornerback Omar Bolden, who took the return for a 66-yard touchdown.
Threet said he and some of his teammates lobbied Erickson to go for 2, but ultimately the coach sent out Weber, a decision which appeared costly in hindsight.
"I thought about going for 2 and I was talked into going for 1," Erickson said. "Obviously it wouldn't have been blocked if we'd gone for 2 but who knows what would happened."
Threet was critical of his play in the first half, during which he completed 7 of 16 attempts for 48 yards -- fewer than Miles had on the game's opening play from scrimmage, a receiver pass to junior receiver T.J. Simpson for 54 yards which led to ASU's 7-0 lead to start the contest.
"We had a great job running the ball in the first half but I just wasn't completing passes," Threet said. "That's why drives were stalling. We were able to come out in the second half and be consistent and execute the offense efficiently and we were able to put points on the board."
Threet finished the game 24 of 40 for 228 yards and three touchdowns while ASU's dual-headed running back duo of sophomore Cameron Marshall and freshman Deantre Lewis combined for a balanced 111 yards rushing on 21 carries.
ASU's defense, led by 13 tackles for junior linebacker Brandon Magee, limited the Trojans to 402 yards of total offense -- below its average of 470.4 -- and wasn't at all responsible for 9 of the team's 34 points. Satisfied, however, they are not, particularly considering the outcome.
"It hurts inside," Magee said. "We go out there and give our all like that and come up short. It does hurt but you've just got to learn from it, just keep learning and move on."
Perhaps no player is hurting more than Weber. Not only did he miss what could have been the game-winning field goal and have a key PAT blocked Saturday, he -- in a role given to him Saturday following the one-game suspension of senior Trevor Hankins for a team rules violation -- had one punt blocked, another partially deflected, and finished with a punt average of 24.6 yards net.
Weber won the 2007 Groza Award as the nation's best kicker as a freshman in 2007 when he missed just one field goal attempt all season. The drop from then, to 2009, when he missed much of the year to injury, and to this year, where he's made just 10 of 17 attempts, has been dramatic.
For Weber and this year's Sun Devils, the perfect Hollywood ending just doesn't seem to be in the script.