TEMPE, Ariz. – David Buehler entered the season as perhaps USC's most significant question mark. Never, at any level, had he been a field-goal kicker.
Eleven games into the season, the junior with the big leg has converted 15-of-17 field goal attempts, after a perfect 3-for-3 night – from 20, 37 and 42 – in the Trojans' 44-24 Thanksgiving victory at Arizona State.
"My kickoffs are definitely suffering a little bit, just because I've put so much focus on the field goals," Buehler said.
Frustrated with his shortening kickoffs – he entered the day with 10 touchbacks – Buehler altered his approach in Thursday's second half. Usually, he tries to pump himself up and rush into each kick.
In Tempe, on a pristinely-cropped field under the thin desert air, "I just took a deep breath, right before I kicked. … I tried calming down a little bit more, and then just drive my leg through the ball and focus on the fundamentals of kicking."
The result: three touchbacks on his final three kickoffs.
Buehler a former safety and fullback, nearly tracked down ASU return man Rudy Burgess, after Burgess sliced through USC's coverage toward a 98-yard touchdown on USC's first kickoff.
"I thought I had an angle on him," said Buehler, who tripped up – but did not stop – Burgess near the USC 10-yard line. "I thought I could use my speed to get him. But these guys are a lot faster than me this year.
"I was with him stride for stride, I think. I just didn't have that extra boost."
John David Booty's 375 passing yards were a season high. His career high, 406, came in last year's loss to Oregon State.
USC came out throwing, with 16 passes versus eight runs in the first quarter. Booty completed 13 of those passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
"It was awesome. That's the way you dream of it," Booty said. "You can't write it any better than the way it went tonight for us offensively."
Defensive stats worth repeating:
-Lawrence Jackson's four sacks were the most for a Trojan since Tim Ryan had four against UCLA in 1989.
-USC held the Sun Devils to minus-3 yards on 26 carries through the first three quarters. ASU finished with 16 yards on 35 carries – a 0.5 average.
Offensive stats worth repeating: Booty completed passes to eight different receivers. Four of them – Vidal Hazelton, Fred Davis, Joe McKnight and Patrick Turner – co-led the Trojans with five receptions apiece.
"As a receiving corps … everybody had a part in it," Hazelton said.
USC racked up 10 penalties for 74 yards. ASU was flagged three times for 20 yards.
USC entered the night averaging 7.6 penalties per game for 67.7 yards.
The most surprising flag of the night came after Sedrick Ellis was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, after making a strongman pose following his sack of Rudy Carpenter. Ellis, who does that after almost every sack, said he was stunned.
"I don't know what this ref's deal was with that," Ellis said. "I've been doing it forever. … I didn't even ask him.
"I think it was crazy, personally. But different refs have different takes on things. That's the way the game works."
Said Jackson, "It was kind of frustrating, knowing that he's done it and hasn't gotten flagged before, this year or last year. Why now, in such a big game?
"We have to overcome stuff like that. We're better than calls like that."
The penalty proved to be costly. Instead of third down and 21 and midfield, ASU was rewarded with a third and six at the USC 35. The Sun Devils went on to score a touchdown, drawing USC's first-quarter lead to 17-14.
USC nearly doubled ASU's offensive output, 508 yards to 259.
The Trojans converted half (9-of-18) of their third and fourth down opportunities.
Injuries: Linebacker Michael Morgan suffered an ankle sprain; running back Hershel Dennis suffered a quard strain; and defensive tackle Fili Moala suffered a "minor concussion."
Jackson aggravated a knee injury from "a couple of weeks ago" and had to sit out a few plays.
Left tackle Sam Baker, who had missed all or part of the past five games, left in the second half, when his torn left hamstring felt tender. As he received treatment, Butch Lewis filled in.
Later, "He wanted to go back in; I said no," offensive line coach Pat Ruel said. "He's trying to come back, and I thought playing in the second half might have been a little too much."
With the game tied, 7-7, in the first quarter, USC had a fourth and two from the ASU 25. The Trojans, accustomed to taking a shot on fourth and short, opted to kick the field goal. Buehler split the uprights from 42 yards away.
"That was a big discussion right there," Carroll said. "And I won."
An exhilarated Carroll tried to lend perspective to his team's most-significant victory of the season.
"That's a heck of team that we played today … with everything in the world to play for," he said.
The Sun Devils, ranked sixth in the BCS poll had an outside shot to play in the national championship game. At the least, they controlled their destiny for a Pac 10 title and only their third Rose Bowl in the program's history.
As for how good they are, here are some stats entering Thanksgiving:
-164.6 rushing yards per game (USC held them to 16)
-318.9 yards allowed per game (USC racked up 508)
-18.0 points allowed per game (USC scored 44)
-ASU's only stats that sat at the bottom of the Pac 10 were red zone defense (90.5 percent) and sacks allowed (43). USC scored on all six of its red-zone chances and had six sacks.
Carroll also expressed excitement about the true freshman contributors on offense, Joe McKnight and Ronald Johnson.
McKnight caught five balls for 71 yards and a touchdown. He also had seven carries for 30 yards, while avoiding his bugaboo – negative carries.
Johnson and Booty finally connected on a deep ball, as the receiver caught a 33-yard pass and landed just short of the goal line.
"Young guys really fitting into the offense – that makes us dynamic," Carroll said.
The coach also heaped praise upon senior tight end Fred Davis, the team's leading receiver – for the season and the game. Davis punctuated a 119-yard night – and USC's scoring – with a 34-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown, on fourth down and two.
"I thought all the receivers did well, but Freddie Davis just jumped out again," Carroll said. "We've seen Freddie in practice run like he did on that long touchdown, where he just runs through everybody. You just had sense that he had so much momentum going that they weren't going to get him."
Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com