Jack Sears impresses in debut, but USC falls to Arizona State

Redshirt freshman Jack Sears finished strong against ASU after a poor start to his college career, but it wasn’t enough as ASU defeated USC 38-35 at the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon.

USC failed to recover an onside kick after a late touchdown drew the Trojans within 3.

The defeat against the Sun Devils drops USC to 3-3 in conference play, making a bid for a Pac-12 championship even more unlikely. The loss also snaps the second-longest home winning streak in college football at 19 games and marks head coach Clay Helton’s first loss at the Coliseum.

“It’s tough to lose that streak because that’s our history,” junior receiver Michael Pittman said. “All of the guys [that] have been here the past three years have put in work for that, and it feels like we let them down.”

Sears’ first drive of his Trojan career ended in a fumble, and the rest of his drives were characteristic of the prominent booing from USC fans as the offense jogged off the field after going three-and-out in the second quarter.

Sears came out in the second half with ASU ahead 24-14 to steadily move the chains all the way to the end zone. On the next drive, Sears led another scoring play off a double pass with wide receivers redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns and Pittman. Suddenly, points were on the board for USC and the team took back a lead it hadn’t seen since the first quarter.

“[Sears] practices like a starter, and today he played like a starter,” Helton said.

Sears finished the game with two touchdowns and 235 yards on 20-of-28 passing as he faced constant pressure in the pocket, struggling to find receivers and often resorting to rushing the ball himself. He rushed 10 times and accumulated a net of 10 yards.

“[Sears] created some [plays],” Helton said. “Even off the dropbacks, you saw him break contain and keep plays alive and find either receivers downfield or make yards with his legs. The ability to keep the ball alive was great by him.”

Redshirt senior quarterback Manny Wilkins ran for a touchdown with under two minutes to play — placing the Sun Devils up by 10. Sears responded with a 52-yard pass to Vaughns for a touchdown with seconds left on the clock. However, the Trojans could not recover the ensuing onside kick.

At the start of the half, Sears targeted sophomore tight end Josh Falo who collected 33 yards on two receptions in one drive. Sears used Pittman and running backs senior Aca’Cedric Ware and sophomore Stephen Carr to move down the field before redshirt sophomore wide receiver Velus Jones ran for an eight-yard touchdown that brought USC within a field goal.

Senior cornerback Iman Marshall forced a fumble on the next drive that redshirt senior cornerback John Lockett recovered to give USC field position on ASU’s 36-yard line. Sears opened the drive with a backward pass to Vaughns, who launched the ball 36 yards to Pittman for a touchdown.

USC took back its lead with a double pass for the first time since the first quarter, 28-24.

“I feel like [Sears] got off to a rough start, but he battled back,” Pittman said. “I felt like second half we looked as good as we’ve looked all year. Credit to [Sears for] stepping up big time.”

At the end of the third quarter, junior wide receiver N’Keal Harry’s 92-yard punt return stole back ASU’s lead.

USC’s special teams landed the punt on ASU’s five-yard line in the second quarter, forcing the Sun Devils to move the ball all the way down the field. Their drive ended with sophomore running back Eno Benjamin’s 49-yard rush for his second touchdown of the game. ASU extended its lead over the Trojans 24-7, and USC once again found itself leaving 24 points unanswered.

“[Benjamin] is very talented,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “The first guy very rarely gets him down, so we knew he was going to be hard to tackle.”

Sears’ first productive drive of the game came at the end of the second quarter and started with a 22-yard rush. A 15-yard pass interference penalty moved the Trojans to ASU’s 32-yard line where Sears connected with redshirt sophomore running back Vavae Malepeai for a first down.

Freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown picked up six yards before Sears targeted Pittman in the end zone to answer the Sun Devils and shrink their lead seconds before halftime.

USC’s struggles started in the first quarter that ended without the Trojans making it into the red zone. Vaughns opened USC’s first possession of the game with an 82-yard punt return into the end zone for the first score of the game and his first career punt return touchdown. The next drive saw Benjamin bring the Sun Devils into USC territory by rushing 11 yards through three USC missed tackles. Harry picked up a 44-yard reception and ran it in to tie the game.

On his first few snaps, Sears steadily rushed the ball for a first down until he ran a run-pass option with Ware and fumbled the ball. The Sun Devils started on USC’s three-yard line and scored a touchdown for the lead.

The Trojans have recently been plagued by injuries. Freshman quarterback JT Daniels is out with a concussion and redshirt sophomore quarterback Matt Fink broke his ribs against Utah. Senior linebacker Porter Gustin is out for the season with an ankle injury and senior linebacker Cam Smith has yet to return after a hamstring injury. Senior safety and captain Marvel Tell is suffering from stingers (nerve issues in his neck) since Utah and was non-contact in practice all week. Tell didn’t play in the game, moving redshirt senior Ajene Harris to safety and Lockett to nickelback.

Freshman safety Talanoa Hufanga was the leading tackler with 11 total and seven solos. He left the game with a broken collarbone.

“It’s tough to play without our older guys that bring that leadership,” redshirt junior defensive lineman Christian Rector said. “As [a veteran] it is my job to bring up the younger guys and show them how to go forward and move on.”

Continuing Pac-12 play, the Trojans will travel to Corvallis next weekend to face Oregon State on Nov. 3.

“I settled in and felt comfortable in the second half,” Sears said. “The guys never stopped believing in me. It was fun to rally with them and keep competing until the very end.”

 

Story was updated at 5:40 p.m. to include quotes from Sears, Helton, Pendergast and Pittman.

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