Arizona State played so unbelievably poorly in the first three quarters of a 42-28 loss at Stanford on Saturday — and so unbelievably well in the fourth quarter — that USC coach Lane Kiffin might think he’s watching four different teams on game film this week.
Good Stanford and bad Stanford; horrible ASU and great ASU.
Kiffin’s Trojans, no strangers to Jekyll-and-Hyde performances, will take on a Sun Devil squad in Tempe that was bounced all over the field by the Cardinal for 45 minutes. Stanford built a halftime lead of 29-0 and led 39-7 after three quarters, so pardon them for assuming that ASU would simply ride out the last quarter in some kind of daze.
Only the Sun Devils woke up, Taylor Kelly tossed three touchdown passes in eight minutes, and a would-be woodshedding instead turned into a what-if.
As in, what if Arizona State remembered kickoff time?
“It was phenomenal how (we) reacted in the second half,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “(We) came back and made a game of the thing. It’s a shame we made so many mental mistakes. We played a good team and we made mistakes we really haven’t made.
“It’d been nice if we played the whole game the way we did in the second half.”
A week after scoring a major, if controversial, victory over then-No. 20 Wisconsin, the Sun Devils admittedly entered the Stanford matchup unprepared. The follies that followed, however, came straight out of a lowlight reel: blocked kicks, punts into the backs of linemen, baffling interceptions.
Their brand of bad football was not enough to reel in Kiffin, though, who is not about to overlook a team that has defeated the Trojans just once since 2000.
“They had some freakish things that screwed up the rhythm of the game,” Kiffin said. “The second half, it calmed down, and you could see them playing really well against a great team. They did it a week before. A very good team, well coached – they’ve done it before.”
USC presents a stout challenge. The Trojans have rediscovered their defense under former longtime NFL defensive guru Clancy Pendergast, hired during the offseason after three years at Cal.
Kiffin, unpleased by the laid-back Cover 2 defense employed by his father, former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, brought in Pendergast to increase the heat.
Any more and the thermometer might burst.
Behind defensive end Morgan Breslin’s league-high four sacks, the Trojans lead the Pac-12 with 16.
“We’ve got to do it every week; we can’t assume anything based on what we’ve done before,” Kiffin said. “We are excited through four games about what our defense has done. We have invested a lot of time over there in terms of changes. We’ve invested time to become a more physical defense.”
Added Graham: “Coach P. (Pendergast) has done a tremendous job. Obviously I like what they do. I like to attack. They’ve gone from a 4-3, Cover 2 to an attacking four-seam defense. They’ve done a great job.”
The key for the Sun Devils is Kelly, who looked like Minka Kelly for three quarters before turning into Jim Kelly for the fourth against the Cardinal.
“I think Taylor has been outstanding,” Graham said. “He had one bad play here; the first three weeks, he might’ve had two. The courage he played with, how many times he got hit was phenomenal.
“His performance in the fourth quarter was the best I’ve seen from a quarterback in a long time.”
If only the first three quarters had played out a little differently.