LOS ANGELES -- As unexpected and astray as Arizona State's rise to the top of the conference to start the season was, the Sun Devils' month-long descent back to reality has followed a relatively linear path, taking loss after loss in similar fashion.
The high-octane offense ASU builds its scoring capabilities around has unfailingly run out of fuel before halftime while the outmanned defense struggles to pick up the slack.
Jumping out to an early lead for the fourth straight week, the Sun Devils (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12) broke down as the game wore on as USC scored the final 24 points of the game to send ASU to its fourth consecutive defeat on Saturday, 38-17, in front of 80,154 fans at the LA Coliseum.
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"We just played poorly on offense," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "We had a poor plan and we did a poor job of executing. It's sickening to lose four straight but there is no quit in these guys. We have a lot left to play for. These guys love this program and care for it. It's a shame we let this one get away."
The 17 points were the lowest total the Sun Devils have put up this year. The limited offensive productive was made even more surprising by the circumstances around it. The No. 19 Trojans (7-3, 5-3 Pac-12) surrendered 101 points in their last two games and ASU happened to force five turnovers Saturday, giving the offense plenty of opportunities to strike.
"You can't win a game when you get five takeaways and do basically nothing with them offensively," Graham said. "I'm not going to point one person out. That team gave up 61 points last week and the week before that they gave up over 600 yards. We moved the ball in the first half, we did nothing in the second half."
ASU amassed 142 total yards in the first quarter but the rest of the way it only added 108 more while committing four turnovers. Penalties and a lack of productive on first and second down took away from the Sun Devils' ability speed up and wear down the USC defense. Entering the game, ASU had committed all of 35 penalties in nine games but Saturday it took seven.
"We can't sustain a tempo because we're making too many mental errors," Graham said. "We didn't have a chance today because we didn't do anything today on offense except for turn the ball over."
At the center of the offensive debacle was ASU sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly. The signal-caller who only threw two picks in his first six games of 2012, tossed three on Saturday, giving him seven in his last four contests.
"We're throwing the ball right to the other team," Graham said. "It's not like guys are making phenomenal plays, we're just throwing the ball right to them. We can't do that. That's our job as coaches."
Overall, Kelly finished 19-of-30 for 174 yards and a touchdown while also taking seven sacks for a combined loss of 56 yards. Despite his quarterback's recent struggles, Graham didn't place the blame for the defeat on Kelly's shoulders, instead putting it on the team and the coaching staff while reiterating he is ASU's guy.
"Taylor is our quarterback, I'm more upset with our performance as a coaching staff, he's been great all year long," Graham said. "We're showing some inexperience but we weren't facing that kind of adversity earlier this season. I don't make kneejerk decisions. We didn't get it done today."
While a portion of the responsibility for the sacks and interceptions lies with Kelly, the offensive line also struggled at times Saturday, especially later in the game when USC made adjustments to its game plan.
"They did some more exotic blitzes in the second half, we had some bad protection," ASU junior offensive lineman Evan Finkenberg. "They were a big physical group with athletic guys. They got pressure on us and we couldn't keep the pocket."
Despite the final score indicating a subpar performance by the Sun Devil defense, ASU held the Trojans at bay for much of the afternoon on that side of the ball.
The Sun Devils forced USC senior quarterback Matt Barkley into three interceptions while also taking away two fumbles. By the end of the game, however, the defense grew tired as the Trojans had possession of the ball for more than 36 minutes Saturday.
"It's a heartbreaker, our guys have great heart but it hurts," ASU sophomore devil backer Carl Bradford said. "I think we got beat at the end of the day. We know we have to keep moving forward though."
Lining up all over the field throughout the game, Bradford ended up with 10 tackles, two for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble and an interception. After the clock hit triple zeroes, the sophomore told Graham he gave his whole life out there.
"Carl Bradford really stuck out for me today," Graham said. "He was a big part of the game plan this week. He beat his guy every time he was matched up. He was all over them. I think he's learned to be a student of the game. That's what I'm proud of."
Even as they contained USC, the Sun Devils were burnt by the slant route on third down consistently through the day. The Trojans motioned their backfield and tight ends out to make a linebacker move out of the middle to open up the pass to one of their big receivers.
"The little slant routes were a silent killer, they showed great patience," Graham said. "Those really were key to keeping those drives going. They did a good job of executing that. They had about four of those they converted."
Like each of their last three games, the Sun Devils drew first blood Saturday, taking advantage of an USC fumble as Kelly hit junior tight end Chris Coyle in the back of the endzone on a third and 19 touchdown pass to put ASU ahead, 7-0.
Kelly appeared as if he was going to scramble to make an ensuing field goal attempt shorter, but as he approached the line of scrimmage USC senior safety T.J. McDonald bit on the run, leaving Coyle open for the score.
After the Trojans and Sun Devils traded punts, USC tied the game on an 80 yard catch and run by USC sophomore wide out Marqise Lee, who ran past ASU seniors Deveron Carr and Keelan Johnson into the endzone. Lee finished the afternoon with 10 catches for 161 yards and the score to go along with 66 yards rushing.
"We gave up one big one to him," Graham said. "That was bracket, double coverage. The guy is special. He ran right by one and by the other. We backed it up after that."
Early in the second quarter with the ball near midfield, the Trojans looked poised to take their first lead of the game, but on a long third down, ASU junior defensive back Alden Darby jumped a Barkley lateral pass and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown.
The interception marked Darby's team-leading third of the season.
"They ran the play before and it got blown dead by a whistle so I knew they'd run it again," Darby said. "They did the same play and I picked it off. I knew I had to get to the endzone. I knew he was going to throw the ball right there."
With the Sun Devils ahead by seven and halftime approaching, the Trojans received the ball with six and a half minutes to work with and methodically drove 79 yards to tie the game, 14-14.
ASU allowed USC to convert on four third downs during the drive, including one on a Carr pass interference penalty. Barkley capped off the sequence by throwing a four yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Xavier Grimble.
"We've been getting more penalties, it's the little things we have to stay focused on," Darby said. "We have to get back to who we are."
After the intermission, the Sun Devils received another gift when Bradford tipped a Barkley pass, stayed with it and came down to the ground with the defense's third interception of the afternoon.
"I just made a play for my team, I don't really care about the interception, I care about the win," Bradford said. "Obviously we didn't do that. But I just read him, knocked the ball down, found it in the air and caught it."
Yet again, however, ASU couldn't capitalize on the USC mistake and instead settled for a field goal to go ahead by three.
From that point, the Trojans went on a 24-0 run to end the game, extinguishing any hope of a Pac-12 South title for the Sun Devils.
"It's a tough pill to swallow, it's hard to tell guys to keep your head up and keep fighting," Darby said. "It's hard to push that "Ya-Ya" speech. But you have to do it, what do you have to lose? We've lost four in a row, we've lost some games we should've won but at the end of the day we gotta give that "Ya-Ya" speech and continue to play hard."
The last three touchdowns all came from USC senior running back Curtis McNeal, making the mostly competitive game appear like a blowout in the box score.
"I hate they got a score there late," Graham said. "It wasn't indicative of how well we played defensively."
Still needing a win to become bowl eligible, the Sun Devils have two more chances to reach the six victory plateau, a home game next week versus Washington State and a trip to Tucson the following Friday for the Territorial Cup against Arizona.
"We play for the seniors, we play for the guys next to us and we play for the team," Darby said. "We play for a bowl game, of course. We can't give up no matter how bad the situation looks."