Some breathtaking moments defined USC's season-opening rally to defeat Arizona State: Bru McCoy playing Johnny-on-the-spot first to catch a deflected touchdown, then recovering Parker Lewis' onside kick; Kedon Slovis firing a laser through a tight window on fourth down, finding a streaking Drake London for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
But contributions of a less jaw-dropping variety proved equally significant — and could prove more crucial to paving the Trojans' road to a Pac-12 championship in this pandemic-shortened season.
Much of the conversation around USC's outlook heading into 2020 focused on the second year of Graham Harrell's air-raid offense, the return of Slovis, their surprising breakout star quarterback, and a stacked receiving corps that might be the nation's best. Rebounding from a disappointing, 8-5 finish in 2019 to pursue a conference title, however, hinges on the development of first-year coordinator Todd Orlando's defense.
While the revamped offense put up some impressive numbers, and Slovis set a bevy of program and conference records, the final month of the 2019 campaign underscored the need for a defense that complements such a prolific, quick-strike approach. The Trojans allowed a staggering 36.6 points per game over their final five, including 49 points in their Holiday Bowl loss to Iowa.
Critical moments through three quarters against Arizona State had a feel of new year, same problems: DeaMonte Trayanum scored the Sun Devils' first touchdown on a 25-yard run, going untouched as USC defenders struggled to get off their blocks. Rachaad White, who wreaked havoc in space much of the afternoon, turned a routine screen pass into a 55-yard touchdown, blazing to pay dirt with seven Trojans in futile pursuit after the shifty freshman shrugged off some attempted arm tackles.
And then there was Jayden Daniels. Other than Slovis, no Pac-12 quarterback commanded as much attention in the offseason as Arizona State's sensational sophomore. He validated the praise with 111 rushing yards and an average of a first down per carry (10.1).
One time when he took off and didn't gain a first down, however, stands out as just as vital to USC's win as the touchdowns or onside kick.
With about 4:30 remaining and the Trojans desperate to regain possession down two touchdowns, Daniels ran toward what looked to be a gap up the middle. He needed nine yards for a back-breaking first down, but as fast as the hole appeared, Marlon Tuipulotu closed it.
The move itself Tuipulotu made was unremarkable, as he simply side-stepped and burned past La'Darius Henderson. But it was central to getting back the ball for the first of the two late-game scores, and a noteworthy improvement made in the course of just one game under Orlando.
"Our defense did a good job of not giving in," Tuipulotu said on Wednesday. "Credit to all our guys, keeping the energy up on the sidelines and our coaches were also giving us energy."
While improved energy late in a game might seem like a relatively small point, consider how the USC defense faltered as games progressed in that final month a season ago. Pac-12 champion Oregon extended a manageable, 11-point deficit (which had been just four points before a Trojans special teams misfire) into nearly 40 points over the third and fourth quarters.
A similar scene played in the Holiday Bowl, where Iowa turned a four-point game into a blowout in the late third and early fourth quarters. Even in victory, like the regular-season finale against UCLA, the Bruins made a late-game surge that transformed a surefire rout into a 10-point contest.
The first game of this new era following the opposite trajectory is a positive reversal; so, too, is the nature of Tuipulotu's stop.
After the Holiday Bowl, Iowa players remarked that film study revealed a repeated weakness of the USC defense adjusting to misdirection run plays. The Hawkeyes exploited the weakness repeatedly, and the Trojans had no answer.
Arizona State's new offensive coordinator, Zak Hill, similarly went to what had worked in one of the game's most pivotal spots. Daniels was killing USC much of the first half and into the third quarter with designed quarterback draws, but the Trojans' adjustments showed up.
It's a microcosm of the course USC must continue to follow in Orlando's first year, if the Trojans are to win the sprint to the Pac-12 title. And if the defensive coordinator's assessment is accurate, the learning curve shouldn't be too steep.
"All correctable stuff... when you're giving up plays because you miss alignments or simple technical stuff," Orlando said of the big plays surrendered last week. "In the linebacker meeting room, it was like, 'I'll get this right, I can promise you.' There was no palms up or pointing fingers, and that's really, really good sign for 'I care and I'll get it corrected.'"
"We just have to do a better job of stopping the run. Like [Orlando] said, just little things like getting out of our gap," Tuipulotu said. "We'll get it fixed by Saturday [Nov. 14 game at Arizona]."
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo by John McGillen, courtesy of usctrojans.com)