No. 21 USC to get Pac-12 South test at Arizona State

TEMPE, Ariz. -- USC has fallen about as quickly as Arizona State has risen.

Just like that, the Pac-12 South is wide open.

Once an apparent national title contender, No. 21 USC finds itself in a precarious spot as the meat of its Pac-12 schedule commences. After a woeful showing Saturday against Notre Dame, the Trojans' hold on the top spot in the Pac-12 Southern seems shaky at best.

Now-rolling Arizona State is among those positioned to take advantage.

The Sun Devils (4-3, 3-1 Pac-12) will host USC (6-2, 4-1) at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday in what could be the beginning of a series of elimination games within the division. Four teams -- Arizona and UCLA are the others -- are either tied in the loss column or one game back. USC and Arizona State play each of the other three down the stretch.

"We just have to keep our head down and understand how difficult it is in this league to be successful and just keep getting better, but I'm proud of where we are," said ASU coach Todd Graham, whose team has won three of four.

"We haven't accomplished anything. We just have to figure out how to get another win. Our goal is to be Pac-12 champions, and to do that you have to get better every week. I think we've done that."

USC, ranked as high as No. 3 in the AP poll the third week of the season, plummeted from No. 11 after its 49-14 loss at Notre Dame. The Trojans have lost their last two road games, the first at Washington State on Sept. 29.

Notre Dame rushed for 377 yards and five touchdowns against USC and scored the most points in the series since putting up the same 49 in 1977. The Trojans committed three turnovers in the first half and trailed 28-0 at the break.

"You deal with the realism of where we are at," USC coach Clay Helton said. "We are a 6-2 football team that leads the Pac-12 South and has the opportunity to play another game and remain in first place in the Pac-12 South. "There is still a lot to play for in this season."

Quarterback Sam Darnold, who triggered USC's rise when he took over the starting job last season, was removed in the fourth quarter at Notre Dame after tweaking a nagging ankle injury, Helton said. Darnold completed 20 of 28 passes for 229 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He also lost a fumble.

"He's been dealing with an ankle injury since Washington State and playing through it," Helton said. "He's a gamer and will play through a lot of things. He will do anything for his team. We are a successful team because of Sam Darnold."

Darnold has completed 183 of 288 passes for 2,292 yards, with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season. Running back Ronald Jones II has rushed for 672 yards and eight touchdowns. Wide receiver Deontay Burnett has 57 receptions for 739 yards and seven scores. He had eight receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame.

The Trojans barely escaped another loss in their recent run. They edged Utah 28-27 in the Coliseum on Oct. 14 when the Utes failed on a two-point conversion attempt after scoring a touchdown with 42 seconds remaining.

ASU had much less difficulty with Utah last week in Salt Lake City. The Sun Devils won 30-10 while limiting the Utes to 265 yards. They rushed for 345 yards, held a whopping 12-minute edge in time of possession and had four interceptions. ASU leads the Pac-12 in time of possession margin.

Arizona State's defense has become the story. Linebacker Jay Jay Wilson had one of the four interceptions last week, and his 20-yard pick-six for a 30-3 lead iced the game in the fourth quarter. Wilson began this season as a tight end before injuries necessitated a switch.

The Sun Devils have beaten ranked teams Oregon and Washington, losing only to Stanford when Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Love rushed for 301 yards. Arizona State entered the Washington game ranked No. 118 among the 129 FBS teams in yards allowed per game (484.2) but limited the then-No. 5 Huskies to less than half that (230) in a 13-7 victory.

ASU gave up 182 points in its first five games, but, after a bye, the Sun Devils have given up 17 points in their last two.

"Our big focus on the off week was to improve fundamentally in our tackling," Graham said. "I think we've gotten better every week and every day, every rep."

Sun Devils quarterback Manny Wilkins has completed 156 of 234 passes for 1,837 yards, with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. He also has rushed for three touchdowns. Kalen Ballage has rushed for 378 yards and Demario Richard has rushed for 309 yards. Each has five touchdowns. Wide receiver N'Keal Harry has 51 receptions for 627 yards and three scores.
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