TEMPE, Ariz. — A year ago, Arizona State stunned USC in Los Angeles with the "Jael Mary."
A loss to the Sun Devils on Saturday night might be even more heartbreaking.
The Trojans (2-1) slid from sixth to 19th nationally following their 41-31 loss at home to Stanford last week. If Arizona State can knock off visiting USC in the desert heat, the Trojans will be 0-2 and in serious trouble in the Pac-12 South, a division many picked them to win.
"I think our players still understand there’s plenty out there for us this season," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said.
With three other Pac-12 South teams nationally ranked — UCLA, Arizona and Utah — making up ground isn’t going to be easy if the Trojans lose again.
Arizona State (2-1) will be playing its conference opener with a chance to erase the disappointment of the team’s inconsistent nonconference performances. Plus, playing the Trojans always brings some added oomph for the Sun Devils, who have beaten USC in three of the last four meetings.
"I don’t think there’s any more oomph to the rivalry than when you sign up to be a Sun Devil," quarterback Mike Bercovici said. "I think for anybody, especially southern California kids that commit to USC, you know that game is going to have a circle on your schedule."
The Trojans no doubt have it circled, too, simply because of last year’s improbable finish.
Arizona State scored three touchdowns in the final 3:53. Bercovici, playing for the injured Taylor Kelly, unleashed a 46-yard Hail Mary at the finish that Jaelen Strong hauled in to give the Sun Devils a 38-34 victory.
"I don’t think it gets any better than that is what I’d tell you," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. "You know, I just think the resolve. It showed a lot about the character of our guys."
Here are some things to watch for when the Trojans visit the Sun Devils.
QUARTERBACK VS. QUARTERBACK: Bercovici, a redshirt senior, threw for 510 yards and five touchdowns in that game a year ago but has not found the same kind of rhythm so far this season.
Still, he improved as the game went on in last weekend’s 31-10 victory over New Mexico. Graham and his quarterback attributed that to Bervocici’s improved running.
"If opportunity calls for you to use your legs, that’s what you do," Bercovici said.
USC quarterback Kody Kessler has been rolling.
The Trojans senior ranks among the nation’s leaders in completion percentage (78.7) and passing touchdowns (10).
Kessler has thrown 101 passes and has yet to be intercepted.
"At the end of the day, I don’t know what more we could really ask of the guy," Sarkisian said.
MOVING THE BALL: USC is averaging 48 points and 558 yards per game. The Trojans’ average of 8.4 yards per play is the best in the Pac-10 by nearly a yard.
Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster is third nationally with 434 yards receiving.
But the big numbers should be taken in perspective. Before Stanford, the Trojans’ opponents were Arkansas State and Idaho.
GETTING HEALTHY: Sun Devils running back Kalen Ballage could be back after missing the New Mexico game. Wide receiver Devin Lucien injured a hamstring against the Lobos but is expected to play against the Trojans.
In Ballage’s absence, the Sun Devils have gotten standout play from Demario Richard. Who rushed for 104 yards against New Mexico and caught four passes for 151 yards, including a 93-yarder.
DESERT HEAT: A big, loud crowd is anticipated and that’s just fine with Kessler.
"I’ve always loved road games," he said. "They’re tough. They’re loud. I remember my freshman year when I was here and (Matt) Barkley was playing. It’s a tough place to play. It’s loud. It’s crazy. Their student section is awesome, but I love that."