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Sun Devils pound USC, but there is much work to be done

TEMPE, Ariz. — The goal for head coach Todd Graham was for his Arizona State Sun Devils to bounce back after a confidence-sapping 42-28 loss at Stanford last Saturday that was not nearly as close as the score would indicate.

The Devils did just that, racking up 612 yards of offense against USC, who came into the game ranked fourth in the nation in total defense, in a 62-41 shootout Saturday night.

There was plenty to be happy about if you’re a fan of the fork.

The Sun Devils’ defense did some good things. They sacked USC quarterback Cody Kessler four times and forced four turnovers — three courtesy of senior safety Alden Darby. Defensive tackle Will Sutton looked more like the one-man wrecking ball he was last season than he has in any other game this year. The senior had his first sack (on USC’s first play from scrimmage) and two of ASU’s nine tackles for loss.

Marion Grice is a lean, mean touchdown-scoring machine. The senior tailback again didn’t have gaudy numbers, but found the end zone four times against the Men of Troy. In his last seven games, dating back to last season, Grice has scored 18 total touchdowns.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly and receiver Jaelen Strong have developed a strong chemistry through the season’s first quarter, and are basically daring opponents to stop their array of fades and back shoulder throws. Nobody has figured out how to do that just yet.

And the Devils’ running game, which has struggled for much of the year, flexed its muscles in the fourth quarter, gaining 145 of their 269 ground yards when they slowed the tempo and tried to melt the clock away.

Again, ASU’s ultimate goal was reached — a win — so anything I bring up on the negative side may sound like nitpicking. So be it. Arizona State has been confidently outspoken about their desire to win the Pac-12 South, but performances like Saturday’s won’t get them to that level.

So what exactly am I nitpicking?

• The Sun Devils need to tighten things up in the red zone. On two trips inside the Trojans’ 20-yard line late in the first half, mistakes cost ASU. Facing a 3rd-and-goal from the USC 1-yard line, offensive lineman Sil Ajawara was called for a hold that marched ASU back to the 11. They settled for a Zane Gonzalez field goal that put them up 17-14.

Just minutes later, ASU had another 3rd-and-1 from the USC 2-yard line and lined up three tight ends to the right side. Instead of running that way, it looked like the Devils had called for a “jump pass”, popularized by Tim Tebow in his days at the University of Florida. Except on this occasion, there was no jump and there was no pass. Eubank was tackled for a 2-yard loss by Leonard Williams and again had to settle for a field goal. That’s eight squandered points if you’re keeping score at home.

• And while we’re on it, haven’t we seen enough of the Eubank experiment? ASU tries to take advantage of Eubank’s size near the opponent’s goal line, but his insertion into the game more often tips off the defense than it helps the offense. Taylor Kelly has turned into the engine that drives the Sun Devils’ offense, so taking him out at any point on the field and limiting the options near the goal line just doesn’t make that much sense (to me anyway.)

• There has to be concern about ASU’s rushing defense. Wisconsin amassed 237 yards on the ground two weeks ago, and Graham dismissed it by saying most of the damage was done on the fly sweep by Badgers’ tailback Melvin Gordon. You know what? Graham was right. Wisconsin didn’t thrive in their customary power running game.

But what we’ve seen in the last two weeks has been good, old-fashioned, between-the-tackles dominance by Stanford (240 yards) and USC (247 yards). Both Tre Madden and Justin Davis had over 100 yards against ASU Saturday, and USC’s trio of tailbacks (including Javorius Allen) averaged 8.3 yards per pop on the ground. The Devils allowed five runs of 20 or more yards against the Trojans, who entered the game as the 66th-best running team in FBS.

The holes that Madden and Davis were running through were big enough to qualify for their own ZIP codes from the U.S. Postal Service. Arizona State has games remaining against Washington, UCLA and Arizona — three of the best running teams in the nation.

Look, beating USC is always sweet, especially when it’s been such a rare occurrence over the last 13 years.

There’s still a lot of talk about championships in Tempe — and I’m not saying there shouldn’t be.

I’m just saying Arizona State has a lot of work to do and plenty of issues to address before they’ll be able to approach that level.