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ASU struggles out of the gate, can’t overcome early deficit in loss to USC

Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (2) makes a catch as Southern California linebacker John Houston Jr. (10) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona State Sun Devils started off Saturday afternoon already behind the eight ball, with freshman quarterback Joey Yellen under center in place of injured starter Jayden Daniels.

But while the QB managed to make the most of his debut, tossing four touchdowns and nearly 300 yards, the Sun Devils struggled to find their footing early on, falling 31-26 as the team couldn’t claw itself out of an early deficit.

“We’ve played in two games now that all of a sudden the first half we kinda stumbled around and fumbled around and all of a sudden we’re playing from a deficit,” ASU head coach Herm Edwards said after the game. “Defensively that’s happened the last two times we’ve played. Lot of big plays from USC, we knew they were a very potent offense. They got on top of us early and then the second half we rallied back pretty much to get ourselves back in the game.

“Can’t say enough about Joey. For a kid that has never played to go in and play against a really talented defense and score four touchdowns says a lot about his mindset and how he’s prepared himself to play with not playing all season and had to be pressed into play so kudos to him.”

Both Yellen and the defense had no time to settle in for the Salute to Service Game as USC came out with its hair on fire. Behind freshman QB Kedon Slovis, the Trojans absolutely unloaded on the Sun Devil defense. The quarterback methodically went to work to open up the game, completing all six of his passes, including an eight-yard touchdown pass to freshman Drake London for the first points of the afternoon.

The score was just the tip of the iceberg for the young QB as Slovis went to town on ASU’s secondary, converting every drive in the first quarter for a touchdown. All told, the quarterback had more touchdowns than incompletions, throwing for 297 yards and four scores, on 15-of-17 passing.

“We didn’t come out ready at all,” junior defensive back Evan Fields said after the defeat. “That’s like the second week that’s happened too, we came out flat. We came out letting them take the fight to us. That’s just something we can’t do. We have to go out there and be the aggressor with the defense.

“We can’t play quarters of the game, we got to play the full game and we didn’t start playing really until the second quarter and you can’t win games like that.”

It was polar opposite of the start for Yellen and ASU’s offense.

Playing his first meaningful snaps for the Sun Devils, Yellen couldn’t find a rhythm right out of the gate, registering a quick three-and-out with two incompletions and a sack, sucking the life out of Sun Devil Stadium. The Trojans went right back to work, capping off a six-play, 82-yard drive with an eight-yard passing touchdown to freshman running back Kenan Christon.

But right as it looked like USC was going to play a flawless first quarter, ASU found its spark in Brandon Aiyuk. Back to field the ensuing kick, Aiyuk turned on the afterburners, shifting his way through defenders all the way down to USC’s three-yard line, igniting the sideline in the process.

The kick return wouldn’t be for naught, as Yellen competing his first pass as a college starter in a big way, connecting with senior wideout Kyle Williams for the five-yard score and trimming the deficit to 14-7.

Right on queue, the winds shifted back in USC’s favor, however, as Slovis answered right back, firing off a 58-yard touchdown before another three-and-out from Yellen and ASU.

Things would turn from bad to worse to close out the quarter as USC made it 28-7 with a 95-yard touchdown pass from Slovis to sophomore WR Amon-Ra St. Brown.

The first quarter was one to forget, as ASU didn’t record a single first down, but luckily for the Sun Devils, the wind that was knocked out of their sails early on was picking up in the second.

Even with an early interception from Yellen deep in USC territory during the opening drive of the second quarter, ASU looked noticeably different, especially on defense.

After getting torched for four scores through the air, the defense dug in just before halftime, forcing USC to punt not once but twice and adding an interjection to the Slovis’ statline.

The offense stepped up too as Yellen manufactured a three-play, 71-yard drive, capped off by a 62-yard touchdown completion to redshirt junior WR Frank Darby.

Even with the successes, the Sun Devils still found themselves on the losing side of the scoreboard, trailing 28-13 at halftime.

But unlike the start of the first half, ASU, not USC, looked like a team on a mission.

Using a seven-play, 57-yard drive, Yellen and the ASU offense moved the chains, finishing off the drive with a two-yard strike to senior WR Brandon Aiyuk to cut the lead to 28-20.

“[Graduate assistant Mike Bercovici] said it best,” Yellen said when asked about ASU getting back int the game. “He said just keep playing. Not with me out but this team has dug themselves out of some holes not just this year but last year as well. This team has dealt with adversity so I don’t think there was ever really any panic.

“They got off to hot start, but I thought the defense responded really well and gave us a lot of opportunities and we just need to execute and score on some of those opportunities that we got.”

For USC, the second half looked a lot like ASU’s as the team failed to score more than three points, settling for a late third-quarter field goal to keep ASU at bay.

Behind Yellen’s arm, the Sun Devils carried their third-quarter momentum into the fourth quarter, while the defense continued to stymy USC in the second half.

Using a six-play, 40-yard drive, Yellen got past the defense for yet another score, his fourth of the night, connecting with Darby on the 15-yard TD. The two-point try was unsuccessful, giving USC a five-point lead with 8:54 left to play.

And much like the rest of the second half, ASU’s defense did their part, forcing a USC punt and giving the offense one last shot at completing the comeback.

Sitting at their own their own 10-yard line with 3:39 minutes left, Yellen went to work, finding the open man and moving the chains. But just as it looked like the QB was one his way to sealing his first college win, a wide-open drop from Tommy Hudson sucked the life out of the stadium. Still, the Sun Devils were still in the game, with Yellen competing his next pass to Williams for the first down on USC’s 32-yard line.

With just a few plays left in the game, Yellen went for it through the air on first down. But instead of connecting down the field, a USC defender got his hand on the ball, tipping it before coming down with the interception and dashing any hope left on ASU’s sideline.

For Yellen, the day ended with the pick, but the freshman impressed those around him, completing 28 of his 44 throws for four scores and two interceptions in his first real taste of live college action.

“I felt like [the coaches] prepared me well and a lot of the reads were there,” Yellen said. “A couple throws I want to have back for sure but I felt like we had a good plan going into this and executed it for the most part, just a few plays that we kinda left out there.”

For the Sun Devils, the loss marks yet another defeat after starting slow out of the gate.

“I don’t know if it was because of the bye week, the time we get off, I don’t know, but it’s something that we just got to fix,” Darby said after game. “I felt like we were ready for this game, I felt like we pushed everyday for it and we came out here and it was like one of those UCLA games. Like we didn’t expect for them to do that.

“We just got to keep picking each other up. One person can’t just give energy, we need everybody in it. I don’t know if it’s just energy … I don’t know what it is but it’s something that we’ve got to get over and figure it out so we don’t lose anymore games. We’ve got three left, we’ve got to get those. This was not the season we were expecting. We ain’t worked this hard to come out like this.”

Up next, the Sun Devils look to snap their three-game losing as they travel to take on the Oregon State Beavers.

“Hopefully it’s another learning game for them, but we’ve got to stop doing this to ourselves because we’re getting behind in games too early and it becomes very, very difficult to play uphill and we’ve done that the last two times we’ve played.”

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