Podcast: How do the Trojans respond following their tough loss to the Ducks last week?
It’s been 11 seasons since Arizona State beat USC in a football game — 1999 was the last time it happened.
This Saturday’s game — scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the Coliseum — is the Sun Devils’ best chance to do so in quite a while, with the Trojans reeling from a 21-point loss to Oregon and ASU coming off a dominating 42-point shutout victory over Washington State.
But USC is still favored, and with good reason: The Trojans (5-3, 2-3) still possess a talented offense capable of putting up the points against almost every opponent, and a defense that struggled against the Ducks but appears motivated to again prove its validity in conference play.
Arizona State (4-4, 2-3) has had a very up-and-down season, consecutively smashing two FCS squads to start the year, then struggling to three straight close losses. The Sun Devils beat Washington on the road handily but lost embarrassingly to Cal — 50-17 — the next week.
A season ago in Arizona, the teams played poorly and struggled to score points of any sort. USC came out on top, 14-9, as USC’s then-freshman quarterback Matt Barkley struggled perhaps more than he had in any game all season.
The saving grace for USC in that game was a pick-six from senior safety Will Harris, the Trojans’ only touchdown. The Arizona State offense appears improved from that game, but Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson hasn’t noticed much of a change.
“I don’t see a lot of difference from when I watched them on tape a year ago,” Erickson said this week. “They’re one of the better teams in our league and it’s a challenge for us.”
Erickson, 63, has faced USC as the coach of three different squads — Washington State, Oregon State and the Sun Devils. But he’s struggled to consistently top the Trojans at any of those stops, even dating back to the 1980s.
This time, he will attempt to make good use of his talented transfer quarterback — former Michigan signal-caller Steven Threet — and a vicious defense that features Corona, Calif., native Vontaze Burfict, a linebacker who was committed to the Trojans for much of high school career at Corona Centennial but de-committed to head to ASU at the last second in February 2009.
Burfict is joined in the linebacking corps by fellow California native and Centennial graduate Brandon Magee. In all, the Sun Devils have a remarkable 49 players hailing from California on their roster — compared to just 37 from their home state of Arizona.
Other formidable forces on the ASU defense include star freshman defensive end Junior Onyeali and cornerback Omar Bolden, also a California native.
When asked what Arizona State had to offer that he was most worried about, Kiffin said, “I think defense, their pass rush. Really good defensive ends rushing the passer and they’ve given people a lot of problems. This will be a very big test for us.”
Kiffin also mentioned the Sun Devils’ vertical passing attack. Threet has been interception-prone this season, with 13 interceptions compared to 14 touchdowns, but his 63 percent completion rate is solid. A remarkable five ASU receivers have accumulated at least 200 receiving yards on the season — plus running back Deantre Lewis, who also leads the team in rushing with 6.5 yards per carry.
USC’s tackling has improved since the Trojans’ coaching staff reinstated tackling drills in practice two weeks ago. Kiffin said Wednesday that his team’s tackling against Oregon — regardless of the 53 points the Ducks scored — was better than it had been earlier this season.
But the Trojans folded outright in the fourth quarter of that game, letting the never-tired Ducks run right over them in the final 15 minutes and turn a once-close game into a blowout. And with a number of players out of practice or limited this week, depth could again be an issue against the Sun Devils.
It will be a big test.