LOS ANGELES (AP) — The sight of Arizona State receiver Jaelen Strong catching the 46-yard touchdown pass as time expired for an improbable win over USC is as memorable for what didn’t happened on the game-winning play as what did.
There was no line of defenders waiting to knock the ball down. No USC player even touched Strong, with only linebacker Hayes Pullard standing on the goal line looking as if he was going to make a fair catch.
“With me, I just saw the ball in the air,” Pullard said Wednesday. “I made a mistake not just jumping and going up there and getting it, like what I’m supposed to be doing. Everybody has that play. They just don’t think it out.”
The USC (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12) defense had several of those plays, allowing three touchdown passes in the final 3:53 of the Trojans’ 38-34 loss, but the focus was still on the Hail Mary as defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox spoke with reporters for the first time since the late-game meltdown.
Wilcox called a zone defense, looking to prevent Arizona State from completing a short-to-intermediate pass to set up a field goal attempt. However, there was confusion on the field over personnel and the play call.
Wilcox blamed himself for the communication breakdown, while cornerback Kevon Seymour said those issues were not responsible for the defense allowing Strong to get open.
“We’ve just got to be in better position and make a play on the ball,” Seymour said. “It was on us because we weren’t lined up and found ourselves out of position.”
That left USC coach Steve Sarkisian to stand up for everyone on that side of the ball, saying he was pleased with how the defense played up until those last three possessions, when it yielded 243 of Arizona State’s 510 yards passing in the game.
“For whatever reason, we give up a 98-yard drive, then we give up a 73-yard touchdown pass, and then we give up a Hail Mary three series in a row,” Sarkisian said. “That’s where the focus is, but I think we’re doing good things. I think we’re improving. I think we’ll continue to improve.”
That improvement has to come quickly, as USC will take on No. 10 Arizona and another prolific spread offense on Saturday. Led by redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon, the Wildcats rank seventh in the FBS averaging 350 yards passing per game.
Cayleb Jones and Austin Hill give Arizona a pair of 6-foot-3 receivers with the kind of physicality Strong used to frustrate a young USC secondary for 10 receptions and 202 yards with three touchdowns.
“They got a whole bunch of Jaelen Strongs over there,” Seymour said of Arizona.
This would be the kind of game — to say nothing of upcoming contests against pass-happy Washington State and California, as Sarkisian was quick to note — where the experience and size of defensive back Josh Shaw would be a valuable asset for USC, but the senior remains suspended indefinitely.
“There is not even a decision to be made on our end at this point,” Sarkisian said regarding any possible change in Shaw’s status.
The Trojans are nearing a decision regarding the availability of linebacker Lamar Dawson (knee) and running back Tre Madden (turf toe). Neither Dawson nor Madden has played this season because of injury, and Sarkisian indicated both are likely to use a medical redshirt with a final decision coming next week.
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