TEMPE, Ariz. -- In the days leading up to USC's first road game, Trojans coach Lane Kiffin preached to his squad about the importance of keeping its focus and minimizing mistakes.
As it turns out, Kiffin's words could not have been more prophetic, because it was turnovers, penalties and missed opportunities Saturday that helped lead USC to its first loss of the season, a 43-22 defeat to Arizona State at Sun Devil Stadium.
Don't be deceived by the final score, as this one was very much a game with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. ASU held a 28-22 advantage, but the Trojans had the ball at the Sun Devils' 14-yard line, threatening to regain the lead. At that point, ASU defensive end Greg Smith, playing for the injured Junior Onyeali, came in and forced a Matt Barkley fumble, which was recovered by defensive tackle Bo Moos.
ASU then drove the length of the field and scored to take a 36-22 lead. On the first play of the next drive, Barkley was intercepted by Shelly Lyons, who returned it 41 yards for a touchdown and the resulting lopsided, final score.
The fact that the game was so close in the fourth quarter was a testament to how well the Trojans had come back in the game. USC had failed to get much offense going early on, with only 36 yards rushing in the first half and all nine of its first-half points on three field goals by Andre Heidari.
The Trojans did have a golden scoring opportunity in the second quarter after Nickell Robey returned a punt 44 yards to the ASU 13-yard line. The score was 14-6 and the Robey return was potentially the kickstart the Trojans were looking for.
It didn't happen that way, as Barkley was intercepted on the second play of the drive by Vontaze Burfict, who returned it 36 yards to midfield. The Sun Devils drove in for their third touchdown of the half and, after the third Heidari field goal, entered intermission with a comfortable 21-9 lead.
"I thought that red-zone turnover by Burfict really changed the game at that point," Kiffin said. "It was a really great play by Vontaze. I don't even think he's supposed to be out there, I think he just went on his own."
The Trojans defense then held Arizona State, forcing a punt. USC got the ground game going on its next drive with a nine-play, 80-yard drive for a score. Marc Tyler ran the ball six times for 65 yards, including the final 10 yards into the end zone to put USC ahead 22-21.
"I thought they ran the ball really well against us in the second half," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "Our defense was on the field quite a bit."
Arizona State answered with a long drive of its own to retake the lead, 28-22, and the USC offense seemed ready to counter once again after Robert Woods returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield. Tyler followed with runs of 7 and 14 yards, respectively, but fumbled the ball at the end of the second run for another missed opportunity in Arizona State territory.
It was a jarring turnover for an offense that had seemed to find its groove in the third quarter, but the jolting turnovers were just beginning. After the Trojans defense forced a punt, Barkley and the offense got the ball on their own 9-yard line and proceeded to march right down the field, this time to the ASU 14 before the critical Barkley fumble on Smith's sack.
"We can't turn the ball over in those situations," Barkley said. "We had the momentum at that point, and our offense was moving the ball."
It was one turnover too many, and the next interception by Lyons put away the game for good. There were too many mistakes on a night when the Trojans didn't have their "A" game yet were in a position to steal a victory on the road.
"I was extremely proud of our team in the third quarter," Kiffin said. "I was proud of the way we responded. We took the lead in a tough environment against a really good team. We've got to get ready for next week now. We're 3-1, the season's not over."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com.