Technically, USC’s trip to Arizona State over the weekend was a successful one.
The Trojans traveled to the desert in search of a victory, and they came away with just that. With their 42-28 triumph over the Sun Devils on Saturday night, Lincoln Riley’s team improved to 4-0 on the season and 2-0 in Pac-12 play. Through four games, USC has still yet to trail an opponent in 2023.
Make no mistake about it, though, USC’s trip to Tempe, Arizona over the weekend was far from a successful one. The Trojans showed up expecting a dominant blowout, but instead came away with a narrow win that left far more questions than answers.
Plain and simple, USC’s performance against Arizona State Saturday night was unacceptable.
Make no mistake about it: Arizona State is a bad football team. The Sun Devils were one week removed from getting shut out at home by Fresno State. The week before that, they fell to an Oklahoma State team that lost 33-7 to South Alabama. Arizona State’s only win of the season thus far was by three points—over Southern Utah.
There is a reason that USC was favored by 34.5 points entering the contest. The Sun Devils were an overmatched opponent, and the Trojans were expected to roll over them like a top ten team should.
Instead, USC sleepwalked into Tempe and let Arizona State hang around for far longer than they should have. Despite being favored by nearly five touchdowns, the Trojans led by just seven points with under eight minutes to play, before a Tahj Washington touchdown reception from Caleb Williams and a defensive stop finally sealed the game for good.
Clearly, some of the pregame chatter got to the Trojans. Watching the game, it was obvious Lincoln Riley and the coaching staff did not respect the Sun Devils, and failed to prepare USC adequately. It felt like the Trojans were treating the game as a mere formality, and were already looking ahead to next week’s showdown with Deion Sanders and Colorado.
USC committed 10 penalties for 85 yards. They turned the ball over once through a fumble and again with a turnover on downs. The Trojans had another near-fumble on a kickoff that was luckily bailed out when replay determined that Zachariah Branch’s knee was down prior to losing control of the ball.
While they did force several turnovers that helped the Trojans pull away down the stretch, the oft-criticized USC defense also allowed Arizona State running back Cameron Skateboo to rack up 242 all-purpose yards—shades of Tulane’s Tyjae Spears in last year’s Cotton Bowl.
To Riley’s credit, he did took full responsibility for USC’s struggles Saturday night. When asked about the reason for the Trojans’ sloppy play in the desert, Riley was blunt. “Shitty coaching,” he said.
But taking accountability is one thing. Making improvements is another.
Plain and simple, if the Trojans want to achieve their goal of competing for a national championship, they are going to have to play exponentially better than they did on Saturday night.
Ultimately, Caleb Williams and a significant talent disparity were enough to bail out USC’s sloppy performance in the desert. But that won’t continue to be the case moving forward.
If the Trojans plays like they did against the Sun Devils again when they visit Colorado this coming week, they will lose. That will certainly also be the case for games against Notre Dame, Utah, Washington, and Oregon down the stretch.
Through four weeks, it appears as though the Pac-12 might very well be the best conference in the entire country. If the USC team that showed up Saturday night against Arizona State continues to be the one that we get going, forward, the Trojans will be lucky to even finish in the top half of the conference.
Plain and simple, Saturday night in Tempe was an unacceptable performance by USC. For the Trojans’ sake, hopefully it served as a wake up call, or else this team isn’t getting very far.