A complete meltdown of the passing defense highlighted by a single play in the final seconds of No. 16-ranked USC’s 38-34 loss Saturday to Arizona State will haunt the Trojans in their pursuit of the Pac-12 championship.
In just his second career start, Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici capped a 510 yards passing, five-touchdown night with a 46-yard Hail Mary to wide receiver Jaelen Strong.
Arizona State needed every inch that went into Bercovici’s bomb, but the Sun Devils made the most of a few other big plays in the final stretch.
The Trojans’ miscues on Arizona State’s game-winner were the culmination of an overall defensive meltdown uncharacteristic of the team earlier in the night.
USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said in his postgame press conference that he “would have liked to have seen more bodies around the ball” on Bercovici’s last-ditch effort.
One of the Trojans in the neighborhood was linebacker Hayes Pullard.
Pullard said he does not typically play deep—“Just boxing out defenders,” usually—but Sarkisian said the linebacker’s presence was needed to aid the Trojans secondary.
Arizona State was able to pick on cornerback Kevon Seymour some, including on Bercovici’s 73-yard hook-up with wide receiver Cameron Smith, the Sun Devils’ penultimate score.
That touchdown pass negated USC running back Javorius “Buck” Allen’s 53-yard touchdown rush just moments earlier.
Though big plays have come infrequently against the USC secondary, Oregon State’s sole passing success a week ago also came at the expense of Seymour.
Arizona State was able to more consistently exploit those big plays, which in turn forced USC to be less aggressive with its pass-rush.
Bercovici was the X-factor well before the Hail Mary. USC contained the Arizona State run game, holding the Sun Devils to just 31 rushing yards on the evening. But as it became evident USC would not yield much on the ground, Bercovici successfully went to the air.
His two scoring strikes to Strong in the first half were the first passing touchdowns the USC defense surrendered all season.
The second set an ominous tone in hindsight: It was a 77-yard connection with Strong.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox seemingly ironed out the kinks after that score, as Arizona State went the next 33 minutes without crossing the goal line.
After giving up the first two touchdown passes it surrendered all season in the first half, the USC defense buckled down to keep Arizona State out of the end zone for the next 33 minutes.
But in just three minutes, 53 seconds, USC gave up three touchdowns. In less than four minutes, the Trojans went from looking at a 3-0 Pac-12 mark to an 0-1 start in the South division.
The opposite was true for Arizona State. The reigning division champion Sun Devils were faced with falling behind 0-2 in the South after losing to UCLA last week, 62-27.
Down nine points on two separate occasions in the final minutes, that 0-2 start looked all but certain for the Sun Devils.
However, playing in front of a throng of family and friends, Bercovici—a product of nearby Taft High School—engineered drives of 98, 73 and 72 yards.
He did just that throughout the night, avoiding throwing any interceptions after giving away two against UCLA.
Bercovici exploited a coverage that’s been proven time and again to be ineffective in late-game situations, and it cost the Trojans.
USC now heads into next week’s road contest against unbeaten Arizona in need of a victory to get its championship aspirations back on course.