TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — After scraping past Minnesota and playing a close game against Utah, Southern Cal is facing its biggest test of the season this weekend — against a team it has beaten 11 straight times.
Hitting the road for the first time this season, the 23rd-ranked Trojans head into the desert Saturday night to face Arizona State in a game between the two favorites to win the Pac-12 South. The Sun Devils haven’t beaten USC since 1999 and have lost five straight in Tempe, but their potent passing game and smash-you-in-the-mouth defense certainly has the Trojans’ attention this time.
“It’s going to be very competitive and they’re going to be ready to play,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “They’re a great team and they’re really great when they play at home, so we’re going to have to go in there with a lot of young guys and stay focused.”
USC (3-0, 1-0) had its best offensive game of the season last week against Syracuse, piling up 501 total yards as maturing junior quarterback Matt Barkley passed for 324 yards and a school record-tying five touchdowns to five different receivers in the 38-17 win.
Doing it at home against a school more known for its basketball program is one thing. Doing it against an athletic, aggressive defense on the road will be an entirely different challenge, particularly for such a young team.
Still hampered by NCAA sanctions that have limited scholarships, the Trojans have a depth chart loaded with underclassmen and inexperienced players. They handled the first three games at home fairly well, but will be facing not only a hostile environment at Arizona State, but players who are known to be hostile themselves.
Led by feisty and furious linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the Sun Devils have developed a reputation as being a bit nasty, of — at least in the eyes of some opponents — taking things a little too far after the whistle. The Trojans certainly fall on the watch-your-back-against-them side and have even prepared for some of the extracurricular stuff in practice.
“Our service guys were popping guys right and left after the whistle, hitting them, hitting their helmets, just to kind of prepare for that,” Barkley said. “We’ve given our guys heads-up about that type of behavior, and we won’t let it affect us.”
Arizona State (2-1) might have some extra motivation, too.
Back in The Associated Press poll last week for the first time since 2007, the Sun Devils followed it up by floundering at Illinois.
Able to fight past numerous mistakes to beat Missouri and enter the poll at No. 22 the week before, Arizona State couldn’t do it again in an error-filled road loss to the Illini last Saturday.
Hurt by penalties and finding no answer for Illinois’ blitzing defense, the Sun Devils were humbled 17-14 after being plagued by penalties, missed opportunities inside the red zone, three turnovers and six sacks of quarterback Brock Osweiler. A little embarrassed by their performance, they’re hoping to show it was an anomaly by playing better against USC.
“The Illinois game, and I’ve looked at it three times now, there were just some goofy things that happened that wouldn’t normally happen,” Osweiler said. “We’ve broken it down as a team and looked at those mistakes we made, and I can’t go out and guarantee that those will never happen again, but I have a pretty strong gut feeling that we’re going to take care of those mistakes and clean them up.”
They’ll need to against the Trojans.
Despite not being eligible for the postseason and the limits on the roster, USC is among the most talented teams in the country.
Barkley isn’t making some of the same mistakes that plagued his first two seasons, throwing for 892 yards and nine touchdowns with one interception. He plays behind one of the nation’s best offensive linemen in Matt Kalil and sophomore receiver Robert Woods leads the country in receptions with 33 for 361 yards and four touchdowns.
USC’s defense isn’t too shabby, either, filled with fast, athletic players who converge on the ball quickly.
The Trojans are, in other words, a lot like the teams that have had Arizona State’s number for the last decade.
“I don’t see much difference in the USC this year than the other four years that we’ve played them,” Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said.
He and the Sun Devils hope at least the outcome will be a little different this time.