Trojans set for duel in the desert

Not since 1999 has USC lost to Arizona State.

The Trojans, during the past decade, have won 11 consecutive games over the Sun Devils, including five on the road in Tempe, Ariz.

It’s hard, as a result, to fault the No. 23 Trojans (3-0, 1-0) for feeling at least a little confident heading into Saturday’s nationally televised showdown with Arizona State (2-1, 0-0).

Road test · USC junior quarterback Matt Barkley, who has thrown for 892 yards and nine touchdowns through three games in 2011, leads a young, inexperienced offense in its first road game of the season at Arizona State. The Trojans finished with a 5-2 overall mark on the road a season ago. - Chris Pham | Daily Trojan

“The only way we’ll lose is if we beat ourselves,” USC freshman linebacker Hayes Pullard said, who is tied for first on the team with 1.5 sacks. “The defense is coming together really well, so I don’t think that’ll happen.”

Despite its undefeated mark, first-place positioning in the Pac-12 South standings and a return to the Associated Press top-25 poll as of Sunday, USC enters its first road game of 2011 as underdogs for the first time all season.

“We need to make sure we’re mentally ready,” Pullard said.

And for good reason.

Through three games, Arizona State is averaging 33 points and 457 yards per game. Its quarterback, 6-foot-8 junior Brock Osweiler, is completing 66 percent of his passes for 871 yards and six touchdowns.

“You just don’t see that size, period,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “So it’s very unique, very rare and he causes us a lot of issues because he can move around and he’s so accurate and he’s got such a big arm. He can do everything.”

Despite opening the season with back-to-back victories, including a thrilling overtime victory over then-No. 21 Missouri, the Sun Devils’ modest two-game winning streak came to an end last Saturday at Illinois, falling 17-14 to the Fighting Illini.

While Osweiler, who threw two interceptions, and the offense sputtered in defeat, the defense looked all the more stifling — surrendering just 240 total yards, including 2.3 yards per rush attempt.

Heading the defensive unit is junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a 2010 first-team All-American, who had nine tackles against Illinois. Last season Burfict had 89 tackles, 54 solo.

“They don’t make too many 245-pound guys that can run like him,” Kiffin said. “That’s why he should definitely leave this year and go to the NFL and be a first round pick. When he wants to turn it on, look out.”

Fortunately for USC, its offense appears to be hitting its stride.

In its 38-17 victory over Syracuse, the Trojans amassed more than 500 total yards, while junior quarterback Matt Barkley tossed five touchdown passes, tying the school single-game mark for the third time in his career.


But perhaps most importantly, Barkley has thrown just one interception on 116 pass attempts.

Even while throwing for 892 yards and nine touchdowns through three games, the third-year signal caller has been quick to credit the team’s wide receivers for his play, particularly sophomore Robert Woods.

“He’s a special player,” Barkley said of Woods, whose 33 receptions lead the nation. “We’ve known that for a while. It’s great because we have athletes on our team that can make plays as well. If they want to overcompensate and cover him, then that’s just going to open up other guys.”

Similarly, the defense, based on its most recent performance appears as on track as well.

Through three games, USC is limiting its opponents to just 16 points and 317.3 yards per game, and in its last two games against Syracuse and Utah, it has held the Orange and Utes to under 100 yards on the ground.

It’s a near-100-yard per game drop-off after surrendering 400 yards per contest last season.

“We’ve really bought into this playbook and are really in it altogether,” Pullard said.

But for a young defense, leaving the friendly confines of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum might prove all the more challenging. Several of its defensive starters, including Pullard and freshman linebacker Dion Bailey, will play in their first road game for the Trojans. Game-time temperatures are also expected to approach triple-digits.

“It’s about composure, it’s about not letting that get your emotions up,” Kiffin said. “You can’t get into any of that stuff, whether it’s fans or players, whether it’s noise, no matter what it is. Over the years, this has been the best program in the world at doing it.”

After losing just twice on the road last season, Barkley, among others have downplayed the change of scenery.

“It’s going to be a hostile environment, no doubt, but that hasn’t has fazed us,” Barkley said. “I love it. I almost like away games more in being in that environment.”