With 7:32 remaining in the game Saturday night, the USC Trojans held a 27-18 lead on Arizona State. USC had taken over the ball at its 20-yard line with 12:05 remaining. The Trojans were driving the ball and looking to put a thunderous nail in the coffin.
Instead, back-to-back plays that may have been overlooked by some reversed the course of action that night.
"That sequence changed the complexion of the whole game," USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said Tuesday.
The Trojans faced a third-and-2 at Arizona State's 29-yard line. Typically, they would have already been in field goal range, but Sarkisian explained on Tuesday evening's TrojansLive program that with long snapper Zach Smith out with a concussion, there were concerns about the quickness of the snap combined with Arizona State's rush on a field goal attempt.
Rather than risking a blocked field goal, the 29-yard line on a third-and-2 was four-down territory, according to Sarkisian.
"I knew we were going to go for it on fourth down in that scenario."
He expected USC to be able to pick up two yards with a pair of runs. Steve Sarkisian called for a read option play that instead of a pull-the-ball-and-run option had a pass option built in.
"It's very common in our system. When you spread people out, it's very common to give the quarterback a run/pass option," Sarkisian said. "We loved the run call. There was a pass option on it. That's part of our system. I can't take that from [quarterback Cody Kessler]."
Kessler was reading the SAM outside linebacker.
"If the SAM stays in the box or the SAM pressures," Kessler said, "we have no one to block him, so that's who I'm reading off of."
If the linebacker crashes down, Kessler has the option to flare the ball out to Nelson Agholor on a bubble screen. A linebacker in the box leaves a pair of receivers to Kessler's right being covered by a cornerback and a safety over the top. With Agholor's playmaking ability, he should be able to quickly pick up two yards.
Agholor had been making people miss all game. Despite catching multiple passes behind the line of scrimmage, Agholor had racked up eight catches and 91 yards to that point. Earlier in the drive, Agholor had caught a bubble screen seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, made freshman linebacker Christian Sam miss in the open field and picked up four yards (that he was credited with rushing yards since Kessler's throw was technically a lateral).
"[The SAM] stayed tight to the box, so I put it out to Nelson," Cody Kessler said. "The SAM pressured and I was taught all week that if the SAM comes, you need to throw it."
The Trojans' star wideout was backpedaling down the line of scrimmage when the ball reaches him, but instead of Nelson Agholor being able to turn up field, he was almost immediately hit in the legs by ASU safety Demarious Randall, who entered the game leading the nation in solo tackles.
"The safety was about 15 yards deep and made a great play on it," Kessler said.
Randall made one heck of a solo tackle on this play. Agholor had sensed him flying in and tried to spin away as soon as he caught the ball, but Randall pulled him down for a six-yard loss.
"That's a great play by the defender," Nelson Agholor said. "The safety shot the hole and I thought he did a good job. Good play call. Good defense."
What could have been, Nelson?
"It could have went a completely different way. He could have taken a bad angle and we could have went for six. But at the end of the day, the kid made a great play."
Re-watching the play, Agholor is absolutely right. On the play, George Farmer has done a good job of sealing the cornerback to the sideline. If Demarious Randall somehow flies by Agholor or Agholor gets a chance to quickly make Randall miss, there is a huge lane.
It's possible that the crashing linebacker would be able to get back outside if Randall slows Agholor up but doesn't make the tackle, but otherwise, the safety on the opposite side is going to have to track down the speedy Nelson Agholor with only 29 yards to do it -- not happening.
"The safety made a heck of a play," Steve Sarkisian said. But that wasn't the end of the crumbling of that sequence for him. "We were going to go for it again."
At the 35-yard line and facing a fourth-and-8, Sarkisian still intended to attempt an offensive play to pick up a first down, but center Max Tuerk made a huge mental gaffe, forgetting the snap count. Everyone on the line moved in unison, but Tuerk didn't snap the ball, drawing a false start call on the entire rest of the line.
Now instead of a third-and-2 at the 29-yard line, USC faced fourth-and-13 from the 40. The Trojans went with the spread formation with a quick kick punt by Cody Kessler, but first burned a timeout that could have been quite useful in the final moments of the game.
Kessler's punt was bobbled by Demarious Randall and pinned the Sun Devils on the 2-yard line, but that just set the stage for Mike Bercovici, who took Arizona State 98 yards on that drive, a quick 73 on the one-play drive with under three minutes and 72 yards in the final 23 seconds of the game.