Caleb Williams rescues defensively challenged USC in win over Arizona State

Against a team that got shut out by Fresno State at home last week, USC made just enough plays to avoid a disaster of its own self-inflicted wounds during a 42-28 win over Arizona State on Saturday at Mountain America Stadium.

The No. 5 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12 Conference) played like they extended their bye week by committing 10 penalties, fumbling twice and missing tackles, but pulled away late with two second-half takeaways and eight total sacks.

For the first time this season, quarterback Caleb Williams had to play the whole game, finishing with 322 yards and three touchdowns on 20-of-31 passing with two more rushing touchdowns. Running back MarShawn Lloyd paced the ground game with 154 rushing yards on 13 carries.

USC had the same number of penalties (seven) as the Sun Devils (1-3, 0-1 Pac-12) had points in a sloppy first quarter marred by two Trojans fumbles. A bad handoff between Lloyd and Williams that Arizona State recovered at the USC 15-yard line set up an easy Arizona State touchdown drive that tied the score at 7-7 with 6:57 remaining in the first quarter.

The 15-yard touchdown run by running back Cam Skattebo ended a six-quarter scoreless streak for the Sun Devils, who were licking their wounds from a 29-0 blowout against Fresno State last week that was their first home shutout since 1988. In the aftermath, head coach Kenny Dillingham took over play-calling duties, and the former Oregon offensive coordinator didn’t hold back.

The Sun Devils ran a fake punt, a surprise onside kick that USC recovered and lined up Skattebo at quarterback all in a chaotic first half that offered an appropriate swan song to the impending end of the Pac-12 After Dark era. Including a 25-yard completion on fourth-and-five, Skattebo had more passing yards in the first half (42) than Arizona State quarterback Drew Pyne, who was eight-for-15 passing for 33 yards in the first half.

Pyne, a Notre Dame transfer, used his first touchdown throw to pull the Sun Devils to within a field goal 24-21 with 9:25 remaining in the third quarter. Elijhah Badger wrestled the ball away in the end zone from USC cornerback Ceyair Wright and Skattebo completed the two-point conversion by barely reaching the ball into the end zone through a Solomon Byrd tackle.

After a 36-yard field goal from Denis Lynch, who was called upon for two kicks Saturday after only one attempt in the first three games, USC could have pushed the lead to two scores with another short field goal on fourth-and-three from the Arizona State 12-yard line. But Riley kept the offense on the field and Arizona State broke up Williams’ pass to Michael Jackson III, wasting the interception from Calen Bullock that set up the scoring opportunity.

USC forced two takeaways in the second half, including a forced fumble by Byrd recovered by Romello Height that led to a touchdown two plays later. Williams twirled 360 degrees in the pocket before finding Brenden Rice open for a 29-yard score that put USC up 35-21 after a two-point conversion to Mario Williams.

Rice starred with seven catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns.

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