LOS ANGELES - No. 6 USC handled its business at home against Arizona State Saturday night, cruising to a 42-25 victory after a rocky first half.
The Sun Devils hung with the Trojans for the game’s first 30 minutes, but USC’s halftime adjustments paid off, and the second half was an entirely different game.
The Sun Devils had 101 net rushing yards at halftime. They finished the game with 88.
Here are three key takeaways from this tale of two halves:
WHATEVER ALEX GRINCH SAID AT HALFTIME WORKED
“The chief message was we don’t have to make the same mistakes we made in the first half, but if we do, we’re gonna have the same issues in the second half,” Grinch said of the halftime adjustments. “As elementary as it actually is, you’ll get punished. If you have a gap, and you don’t take it, you’ll get punished. You’ll get punished today, tomorrow, next week, doesn’t matter what the jersey on the opposite side looks like.”
This game was a low-possession affair in the sense that there just weren’t that many drives by each team, especially in the first half. Arizona State only had three real drives before halftime (there was a fourth, but it lasted one play and the Sun Devils let the clock run out before heading into the locker room.) Still, they converted that low number of opportunities into two touchdowns and a field goal.
“We didn’t do a very good job finishing in the first half,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “We didn’t play that attacking, relentless style that we want to play on both sides.”
There were some solid plays defensively here and there, but getting off the field was a struggle for the Trojans. They gave up a lot of run plays, particularly by quarterback Emory Jones, that extended drives and gave Arizona State too many chances to score. On the Sun Devils second drive, they converted a fourth-and-1 that led to a field goal. All together, Arizona State converted three of five third downs and one fourth down in the first half.
Grinch considers those moments where the defense has a chance to get a stop missed opportunities. “We call ‘em missed layups. You can’t miss layups, it’s hard to make three pointers,” he said. “Missed opportunities across the board. Opportunities, whether it’s a sack or a tackle for a gain or a short gain, just too many misses.”
Coming out of the half, USC’s defense put together three of its highest quality drives of the season, with the Sun Devils totaling four yards across 12 plays on those first three drives.
Eric Gentry contributed to two big plays on second and third downs to force Arizona State’s first punt of the night with half a sack and a clutch assist to clean up a stop by Mekhi Blackmon. It was also Gentry’s first game against his old team, which he noted was a strange experience for him emotionally, but he was able to shake it off in the second half.
“I would say for me personally it felt weird playing against my old team. We didn’t really have an edge, me being a MIKE linebacker, I really set the energy. But in the second half, I felt way better; I felt way more confident. It’s another football game, so I just played how I usually play,” Gentry said.
The Sun Devils’ next two drives were three-and-outs, featuring big defensive plays by Blackmon, Ralen Goforth and Tyrone Taleni. Their only points in the second half came from a drive that featured three dropped interception opportunities and two highly questionable pass interference calls.
“I thought our guys responded well in the third quarter and made some key plays when it mattered to win the game. Lots to improve on no question about it,” Riley said. “We’ve got some really good opponents coming up, so we certainly need to improve. That’s obviously the goal, so we’ll keep improving, but it’s a tremendous win.”
USC'S RUN DEFENSE IS STILL SUSPECT
Yes, the negative second half rushing yards stat is impressive, but the weaknesses in stopping the run and particularly containing a mobile quarterback like Jones were still apparent. The Sun Devils still averaged over six yards per carry in the first half and were on pace for over 200 rushing yards.
Jones’ ability to move around, extend plays and pick up yards on his own with his legs gave Arizona State almost all of any offensive spark they had Saturday night. When asked about USC’s job of containing him, Grinch said “I would grade it poorly, I don’t know how the stats shook out, but just extending plays, extending drives. Either the pressure was really really good, and we got [Jones] on the ground or we didn’t have any.”
Grinch said he likes his defense to be able to pressure the quarterback with a four-man rush, allowing more guys to drop into coverage, but too often this season, the middle of the field has really opened up for opponents to improvise with the ground game.
CALEB WILLIAMS IS UNBELIEVABLE WITH HIS LEGS
Williams turned in a Heisman-worthy performance with 392 total yards and four touchdowns, although he did throw his first interception of the season on USC’s first drive of the third quarter. So much for that perfect turnover margin USC has been boasting.
Williams bounced back strongly from his subpar performance against Oregon State and upstaged Jones with his own ability to extend plays and pick up first downs on his own. “Some things just don’t go your way,” Williams said of the Oregon State nail biter. “It was how we responded, which is what I was happy about.”
His own teammates were extremely impressed by the quarterback’s antics in the backfield, including a jump-pass to Jordan Addison that likely should have been either a safety or a pick-six, but instead resulted in a first down.
“At this point, I think it’s black magic,” Travis Dye said. “I don’t know, I go off and do my job, I turn around, it looks like he’s about to be sacked, and all of a sudden he Houdinis out of it and we have a 20-yard gain. I don’t understand it either.”
Dye compared Williams’ abilities to those of Johnny Manziel, who notoriously made magic happen on the gridiron. “He’s just an all-around player. He can make a bad situation look just phenomenal. Johnny Football without all the mess that Johnny Football brought,” Dye joked.
Brendan Rice grabbed four catches for a season-high 72 yards, including one for a third-and-long conversion on one of those ad-libs by Williams.
“It’s amazing, because we (receivers) don’t really like quarterbacks that run too much. He knows when to run it, and he knows when to keep his eyes downfield. He gives us time to really get open, make moves, create separation, and that’s what we want from a quarterback,” he said. “Caleb is a dog. When you see that from a quarterback, it inspires the team to go harder, like ‘okay he did that, alright.’ So we gotta go out here and put someone in the dirt.”
Riley has had two years to see this part of Williams’ game develop. “I thought he played well,” he said. “He did a great job in some of the scramble situations again and got us out of trouble a couple of times. Him being able to evade people in the pocket the last two weeks has been really impressive.”
Williams rushed for 52 yards on the ground and was only sacked once, despite being under heavy pressure with some frequency. He also picked up his third rushing touchdown of the season, the ninth of his career.
As always, his last statement before leaving the press room is the most important takeaway: “Five and oh!”