TEMPE, Ariz. -- In case anyone had forgotten after Arizona State's first eight games that Taylor Kelly was still a first-year quarterback, the sophomore offered a reminder against Oregon State last week.
Kelly had his worst game as a starter in the loss just a week after what coach Todd Graham called Kelly's best game. Still, confidence remains high in Kelly as the Sun Devils try to keep their Pac-12 South hopes alive this week at USC.
"Everybody gets knocked on their butt every once in a while," ASU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Norvell said. "It's about how we respond, and he's come out and had a great week of practice."
While there was some external chatter that perhaps the Sun Devils should turn to redshirt freshman Michael Eubank during their 36-26 loss to the Beavers, it has been made clear this week that Kelly is still very much the guy. Eubank will still get his chances in specific situations, but Kelly is unequivocally the starter.
What Graham and Norvell would like to see out of Kelly is a little more consistency. He faced only minimal adversity through the season's first six games but struggled mightily against Oregon, going 10 for 18 with 93 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. The next week, he bounced back strong with 315 yards and four touchdowns while completing 25 of 35 passes in a loss to UCLA.
Then came the Oregon State performance in which Kelly looked particularly inexperienced. He finished 22 for 41 with 153 yards and an interception.
"He came off his best game and had probably the worst game that we've had decision-making-wise," Graham said. "That's not just him, it's our offense."
Graham is right. The ASU offense as a whole could not get anything going against Oregon State's staunch defense on the ground or through the air, particularly in the second half. But frustration with that might have led Kelly to try to force plays, getting out of the efficient, secure style that has served him so well much of the season.
"I was pressing a little bit against Oregon State and feeling the rush with (defenders) getting through," Kelly admitted. "I've just got to do a better job getting the ball out, staying in the pocket and trusting my guys."
The Beavers' defense certainly played a significant role in Kelly's performance. Their pressure and strong secondary play cannot be overlooked. But that ASU's offense strayed from its typical tempo and converted just four of 17 third downs also contributed.
"I think it falls on everybody, me first and foremost," Norvell said. "I've got to make sure I'm putting all our guys in situations to be successful, and then we've got to go out there and execute the game plan."
It would also be remiss to overlook that the past three games have been ASU's greatest challenges this season. That an untested first-year quarterback met adversity in those is not entirely surprising but might seem so in the context of his success against lesser opponents.
Despite the alternating of up and down performances, Kelly remains one of the Pac-12's most efficient passers. His 156.8 pass-efficiency rating ranks third in the conference and 19th in the nation. With a 65.5 completion percentage, he remains on pace to break ASU's single-season record in that category. Kelly has ultimately exceeded expectations significantly, and heightened expectations have cast him now in a bit of a different light.
Through the ups and downs, Kelly has remained even-keeled, never getting too excited about his highs and never too down about his lows. That, Norvell said, has allowed him to maintain confidence and refocus quickly no matter his performance from game to game.
"His confidence level is fine," Norvell said. "Every time the kid's faced adversity this year, he's responded the right way. Coming off a game that wasn't one of his better games, he's motivated. He's going to respond like a champion. I really believe that."
A road game against USC does not provide the ideal setting for a bounceback performance, but Kelly is confident that he has effectively applied the lessons learned last week to his preparation this week. Down performances like the one against Oregon State, Kelly said, actually make him a better quarterback.
"It keeps me more hungry to get out and get better this next week," Kelly said. "We had great practice this week, and our guys are fired up."
USC's defense might also give Kelly some help, as it ranks seventh in the Pac-12 with 249.6 passing yards allowed per game.
Kelly might need one of his better performances to keep up with USC quarterback Matt Barkley, a likely top pick in the next NFL draft, but a big day from Kelly would go a long way in the Sun Devils' attempt at an upset and revival of their Pac-12 South aspirations.
Whatever the outcome, it's clear Kelly has already made a strong impression on his team.
"Taylor has done a phenomenal job," Graham said. "He has been a great leader and he has been a great quarterback for us. He has been one of the most efficient guys in the country."