Arizona State had many opportunities to take advantage of Southern California's turnovers Saturday night. No mistake cost USC more than senior safety Alden Darby's pick six early in the third quarter.
For the second straight year Darby read a USC quarterback's eyes, jumped a route and then took the ball for a touchdown to put ASU up 34-21. ASU took over control of the game after the momentum shifting play and conquered USC 62-41.
The win improved ASU to 3-1 overall and 1-1 in Pac-12 play while USC fell to 3-2 and 0-2. The Sun Devils avoided falling in a big hole to start conference play.
Darby's interception looked familiar to ASU fans.
"[It was] a lot similar to last year," Darby said. "This year we were in a coverage, they ran the play before, in the second quarter, and the tight end was wide open and he made the catch in the red zone. In the third quarter he tried to come back to that same play and I see him wide open again, I left my assignment and went and covered and the quarterback threw the ball and I just went."
After the interception, ASU put up 14 more unanswered points to finish with 28 in the third quarter alone, and put the game out of reach for USC. Coach Todd Graham said it was the turning point in the game.
"It was absolutely huge," Graham said. "Alden is just, I mean, man, he's just really, really good and can really comprehend things and did a great job of playing bracket there and [had] a big time pick six and a great return. He was right there on the sideline returning. I thought that was the play of the game."
This is the fourth straight year ASU has had an interception returned for a touchdown against USC. Sixty-two points is also the most points ASU has scored against USC ever and is tied for second most points ASU has scored against a Pac-12 team. It matches the 62 points Oregon scored on USC last season.
Early in the first half the ASU defense forced two USC turnovers after an interception by senior cornerback Osahon Irabor and a forced fumble and recovery by Darby.
But because of holding penalty and negative rushing play by sophomore backup quarterback Michael Eubank the ASU offense stalled and had to settle for two field goals.
The interception by Darby was the first time ASU fully capitalized on a USC mistake and it did not look back.
Darby intercepted another USC pass on a fourth down play and on the ensuing drive and ASU scored on a 9-yard touchdown run by senior running back Marion Grice. It was one of four touchdowns by Grice on the night, including two coming via pass.
In addition to the 20 points off turnovers, the Sun Devils dominated USC's defense in somewhat surprising fashion because of 42 points of pure offense production.
A lot of the points came from a weakness offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and junior quarterback Taylor Kelly saw in the USC defense early.
On ASU's second offensive play of the game Kelly threw a 21-yard strike to a wide open senior tight end Chris Coyle down the middle.
The catch by Coyle established the offensive tempo and led to a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Eubank. Kelly hit Coyle again on the same route late in the second quarter to set up a field goal to put ASU up 20-14 going into the half. Since Graham has been head coach ASU is 10-0 when it has the lead at half.
Before the Darby pick six ASU was actually losing early in the second half. It took USC three plays on its opening drive to take the lead after a 24-yard touchdown run by sophomore Tre Madden.
The second play of the Sun Devils' next drive, Kelly threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to a wide open sophomore running back D.J. Foster to take back the lead. USC had voided the same area in the middle of the field and Kelly made the Trojans pay for it this time with a touchdown.
Kelly said USC's safeties provided extra help on sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong and it often left the middle open.
"They were starting to bracket Jaelen [Strong]," Kelly said. "We just thought we could hurt them down the seams. Chris Coyle did a great job of getting open. Same with D.J. [Foster] using his speed to get open and take it to the house."
Kelly completed 23 of 34 attempts on the night for 351 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
Coyle and Foster also did a good job setting up in the pocket pretending to block then slipping out into their route undetected by the USC safeties.
Strong, despite being blanketed often, had seven catches including several with a high degree of difficulty for 103 yards. Coyle had five catches for 87 yards and Foster had three catches for 87 yards and a touchdown.
Sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood spent the entire game on the sidelines and the ASU defense definitely missed him on the field.
Senior defensive end Gannon Conway spent the entire week practicing at the 1-techinique to fill in for Hood but it was evident at the start of the game he was out of place.
"He looked a little stressed in the first quarter playing nose tackle," Graham said.
Senior defensive end Davon Coleman was the starting end in place of Conway. The USC coaching staff noticed the void Hood left at the 1-techinque during the Stanford game. Therefore, USC ran directly through the B gap, often between Conway and Coleman.
USC took advantage of the ASU defensive linemen playing in new positions and ran for 134 yards on the ground before intermission.
Graham made a change before the first play of the second half. He moved Conway back to his comfort zone at end and moved Coleman to the nose tackle where he has had some experience playing camp.
"I was really proud of Davon [Coleman] doing that right in the middle of the game" Graham said. "Really why we did that is Gannon [Conway] is so dependable. He has been really, really dependable at that end position. He plays opposite [junior linebacker] Carl [Bradford] so there's a lot of things that he has to do schematically and movements and coverage and things like that. He's really smart and he doesn't make mistakes and so that was big."
Another change Graham made was putting senior linebacker Steffon Martin back in at the SAM relatively early in the game after giving redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso the start.
Graham said Fiso made some mental mistakes early. When Martin was in and Conway was back at end, Graham said it added a calmness to the defense.
Despite the changes ASU still gave up 247 yards rushing to USC.
The entire starting offensive line came into the post-game press conference and stood behind Kelly as he answered questions.
The ASU big men looked pretty uncomfortable answering questions from the press corps. Many were squinting because of the TV camera lights and nervously rubbing their necks as they answered questions.
It was Kelly's idea to bring them into the press conference to give them credit and attention. USC came into the game leading the Pac-12 in sacks and the offensive line kept Kelly upright the entire game.
"It started off with these five [offensive linemen]," Kelly said. "They came to work all week and they didn't allow a sack tonight. They're doing a great job; they're starting to come together. I believe in these guys. We're going to keep working, establish our running game and then our offense starts going."
Besides the pass protection the line also helped to improve the run game. Coming off an embarrassing performance where ASU only gained 50 yards on the ground the offensive line was looking for a redemption game against USC.
The line rebounded against the Trojans with 261 rushing yards and four touchdowns, most of which came in the second half explosion that kept ASU squarely in the Pac-12 South hunt.