The 'uh-oh' moment Arizona State fans have grown so accustomed to feeling on a regular basis happened as many no doubt expected it would. But it was the 'ah-ha' moment that followed that was neither common nor, in all likelihood, widely anticipated.
Sun Devil coach Dennis Erickson called it "resiliency." No matter how one might describe it, for ASU, losers of 11 straight games to Trojans and in desperate need of a different outcome, its 43-22 win Saturday in front of 61,495 fans at Sun Devil Stadium was a big deal.
"Winning this game was huge, this is a football game we have had circled on our calendar for a very long time," junior quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "The Missouri game was huge, but this was a Pac-12 South game. I have heard it is been 11 years, 12 years, 13 years since we have beat USC, but whatever it is, it has been a long time and to be able to go out there and get that win for our fans tonight means a lot to us."
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The win made ASU 3-1 overall and 1-0 in league play, giving it a leg up on its presumed biggest competitor for the South title, Utah, which lost to the Trojans last week in its Pac-12 opener in Los Angeles. The No. 23 Trojans who fell to 3-1, including 1-1 in league play, are ineligible for post-season play.
After building a 21-6 first half lead, the Sun Devils watched USC make a field goal prior to halftime and then come firing out of the blocks after intermission, scoring two touchdowns by mid-third quarter to take a 22-21 lead.
With the Trojans moving the ball seemingly at will on the ground in the third quarter -- after just 36 yards rushing in the first half they had 103 in the third quarter alone -- fans were undoubtedly putting fist to forehead with utterances such as "Oh no, not again."
ASU's response? An 8 play, 76 yard touchdown drive by the Sun Devils that covered just 2:31, didn't require a third down conversion attempt and concluded with the second of junior running back Cameron Marshall's third touchdowns of the night.
Marshall's score gave the Sun Devils a 28-22 lead but probably wasn't the "ah-ha" moment for most ASU fans in attendance, as the ensuing kickoff was returned by USC's Robert Woods for 47 yards to midfield, saved only by redshirt freshman kicker Alex Garoutte's open field tackle.
From there USC running back Marc Tyler, who'd been gashing an exhausted ASU defensive front, -- Erickson would say after the game his defensive linemen were on the field a lot of plays due to injury depletion -- had a 7-yard run followed by a 14-yard run during which senior linebacker Colin Parker forced a fumble that was recovered by junior cornerback Deveron Carr at the Sun Devil 25 yard line.
From there, the Sun Devils gave the ball back after five plays on junior Josh Hubner's punt to the Trojans' 10-yard line. Once again, USC moved the ball easily downfield, 73 yards on 11 plays to the ASU 18 yard line only to turn it over again, this time on a blind side sack of quarterback Matt Barkley by junior end Gregory Smith, who'd played little to that point, but had a big tackle-for-loss on the previous snap.
Smith's forced fumble, recovered by senior tackle Bo Moos, who was around the football all night, led to the Sun Devils' second consecutive impressive drive of the half. The 12 play effort included just one third down conversation and ended with Marshall's third touchdown, which made it a 36-22 ASU advantage.
With the collective mood of Sun Devil Stadium palpably beginning its transition to "this one's going to be different," Barkley's first pass of the ensuring possession was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by senior linebacker Shelly Lyons, giving ASU a 43-22 lead and its fans a soaking in 'ah-ha' lather.
"It doesn't get much better than that," Erickson said. "I've been working hard in this program for four years now, and we haven't beaten them in 11. That's a lot of weight on your shoulders when you think about it. Our players showed so much resilience."
Marshall, who didn't practice most of the week due to a sore ankle, finished with 25 carries and 141 yards on the night, almost half of which came on a 70 yard touchdown run on the game's fourth play from scrimmage. It was made possible by Osweiler's scramble on the previous play, a third and 5, that just reached the first-down marker on a dive that took advantage of his full 6-foot-8 frame.
The Trojans responded with a 41-yard field goal to make it a 7-3 advantage and the teams traded punts before ASU again marked the scoreboard with a 2 yard Osweiler touchdown pass to senior Gerell Robinson following an 8 play drive, which included a possible watershed moment for the receiver.
Robinson had a costly drop in traffic that was one of only two Osweiler incompletions in the first half, but caught a ball in traffic on the next play, a third and 11, that kept the drive alive and gave the Sun Devils a 14-3 advantage.
USC reached the red zone on its next possession, but again could only muster a field goal, which cut ASU's lead to 14-6.
Following an unproductive drive, Hubner's 45 yard punt from the ASU 12 yard line was returned for 44 yards by Dion Bailey to the Sun Devils' 13 yard line. After a 1 yard rush by Tyler, junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict came up with arguably the most important play of his career, an interception of Barkley which he returned 36 yards to USC' 48 yard line.
"I am supposed to pump to the other side and at the snap of the ball, he came up so I thought he was blitzing," Barkley said. "I pump and I just whipped around and threw it, assuming he was going to be pressuring. For whatever reason, he slipped off and dropped into coverage. It was a good play on his part and we did not see it coming."
The play ripped momentum from the Trojans and ASU capitalized with a 3-yard touchdown strike from Osweiler to junior Jamal Miles to give ASU a 21-6 edge.
USC managed a field goal after Barkley and Woods hooked up on a 57-yard pass play before the end of the second quarter to make it 21-9.
It seemed as though the Trojans had everything rolling in its direction after getting its run game on track in the second half, but two untimely turnovers knocked the offense off its rails and ASU took advantage by turning both into touchdowns going the other direction, aided by a balanced offense that saw Osweiler complete 25 of 32 passes for 223 yards.
"We were three and out at the start of the second half and the defense was on the field quite a bit," Erickson said. "Again, it's a team game. We finally put it together. Sometimes you play well on offense sometimes on defense but you can deal with all those things when you win the football game."