TEMPE, Ariz. — They roared in as villains, assembling in the end zone of Mountain America Stadium under the Tempe afternoon sun and waving their arms in glee to the roaring boos of ASU’s student section.
They left humbled, villains who bumbled and buckled from their very first drive under the weight of a stadium screaming for an upset, escaping by the skin of their teeth with a 42-28 win that left Caleb Williams throwing up his hands on drive after drive and a slew of questions as to the Trojans’ ultimate chances in the Pac-12.
He loved being the bad guy, USC inside linebacker Mason Cobb grinned on Tuesday. And this was USC’s first road game of the year, an opportunity for the bad-guy Trojans to punch down against an Arizona State team pushed to the absolute brink by a slew of injuries. And they entered with mouth frothing, with swag dripping, with hoots and hollers and continued encouragement to a rocking ASU crowd pregame to give them more.
Yet they came out, seemingly, unprepared for a desert storm in Tempe.
On the Trojans’ very first drive, amid the roar of a Mountain America crowd, center Justin Dedich committed a false start. On the very next play, Williams gestured wildly in a cacophony of noise, only for a delay-of-game flag to be called. The Trojans committed six penalties in the first quarter alone, yellow laundry littering the offensive lines’ ledger, marring a first quarter where Williams finished off two rollercoaster drives by bullying his way in for rushing touchdowns.
In the week leading up to the bout with USC, ASU coach Kenny Dillingham considered using a wide receiver, he told media, to impersonate Williams. And it wasn’t the worst idea, sure. A plague of ailments had befallen ASU’s quarterback corps, and pass-catcher Jake Smith was pretty fast, Dillingham reasoned: he could dart around in the pocket like Williams.
So why not use him as a scout-QB in the Sun Devils’ defensive preparation for Saturday against the reigning Heisman winner?
Eh, one problem.
“I’m like, ‘But Caleb can sling that thing too – Jake, can you throw it?’” Dillingham joked to media in a weekly presser. “It was just funny. Like, (Caleb’s) great at everything. Smart, elusive, calm.”
And such is Williams’ greatness – able, for nearly one and a half years now, to simply mask any USC issues with his creativity. His elusiveness. His unrelenting ability to pull rabbits out of hats. In the fourth quarter, up 27-21, he went into just-trust-me scramble mode, weaving his way around 360 degrees before rolling to his right and lofting a 29-yard beauty on the run to Brenden Rice in the end zone for the score that would seemingly put Arizona State away.
He finished with 322 yards and five total touchdowns. But Williams’ brilliance, in this one, wasn’t nearly enough to mask the ugliness that lay beneath.
In the first quarter, a botched handoff gave ASU their first takeaway of the year, leading to a 19-yard touchdown from a constantly motoring Cam Skattebo where USC safety Calen Bullock took a horribly misguided route. In the second quarter, former Oregon offensive coordinator turned-ASU head coach Kenny Dillingham threw the kitchen sink at an Alex Grinch defense that seemed a step slow, complete with fourth-down Wildcats and running back Skattebo firing to quarterback Drew Pyne, USC taking just a 21-13 lead into the break. And after Williams’ beauty to Rice, Skattebo motored up the right sideline courtesy of a fourth-quarter pass from Pyne, Wright seemingly in perfect position to take him out.
He dove into Skattebo’s legs, fell away, and Skattebo stumbled only slightly before taking a 52-yard catch to the house.
It was improbable – a seven-touchdown pregame spread cut to one by a crucial point in the fourth quarter, ASU’s faithful the loudest they’d been all evening. Williams finally put ASU away with a 45-yard bomb to Tahj Washington, and the Trojans’ defense stepped up in waning fourth-quarter minutes with a slew of sacks.
But the end result was far from villanous.