Wounded Trojans looking to bounce back at ASU
So much for that plan.
Drubbed by 27 points in Eugene last weekend, the 12th-ranked Trojans figure to be in a bad mood when they show up for Saturday night's game at Sun Devil Stadium. The loss dropped USC from fourth in The Associated Press Top 25 to a tie for fourth place in the Pac-10 and seemingly eliminated the Trojans (6-2, 3-2 Pac-10) as a national title contender.
"We can't worry about USC," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "We have to worry about ourselves. Their track record after they lose is pretty darn good if you take a look at it."
Indeed, USC hasn't had back-to-back losses since a four-game skid early in Pete Carroll's debut season in 2001. The Trojans snapped that slump with a 48-17 rout of ASU, and two years later they bounced back from a loss to California by defeating the Sun Devils 37-17.
USC has been here before. Two years ago, USC appeared to be out of contention when it suffered its second Pac-10 loss in late October, also at Oregon.
But the Ducks, hampered by a knee injury to quarterback Dennis Dixon, collapsed in November, and the Trojans steamed past them and into the Rose Bowl.
"The ability to return and deal with the finish of the season has been something that's been pretty unique for us," Carroll said. "We need to see if we can rediscover that again."
Carroll said his team is "on the road to recovery." This week, the road leads to the desert and a meeting with the mediocre Sun Devils (4-4, 2-3).
For ASU, there never seems to be a good time to face USC. The Trojans have won nine straight over the Sun Devils, their longest active streak over a Pac-10 rival.
The average score during the streak: USC 38, ASU 18.
Meanwhile, Arizona State is 3-27 against the Top 25 since 2000 - and 1-6 under Erickson.
"We have to get one of these wins against a top-tier opponent," quarterback Danny Sullivan said. "Let this be the week, get good preparation and be ready to go."
If ASU hopes to end its futility against the Trojans, it likely will need another standout performance from its defense.
Led by senior linebacker Mike Nixon, the Sun Devils are giving up 19 points per game, second in the conference. Their run defense concedes 80 yards per game, No. 1 in the Pac-10, and last week ASU limited California star Jahvid Best to 63 yards, or barely half his average.
"They've pretty much taken the running game away from teams for the most part," Carroll said.
The Trojans are hurting at tailback, with Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford limited in practice this week.
McKnight has a sore ankle and pain behind his right knee, possibly related to his hamstring. He leads the Trojans with 712 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.
Bradford has a sore right knee. He has 397 yards rushing and four TDs, averaging 7 yards per carry.
If McKnight and Bradford can't play, C.J. Gable may shoulder most of the load.
The Sun Devils need to stop USC because their offense could struggle against the Trojans' defense. ASU's attack has mustered more than 24 points only once in its last six games - and that was when it put up 27 against woeful Washington State.
But USC's defense isn't quite so formidable as it looked early on. After giving up a total of 43 points through five games, the Trojans have conceded 27, 36 and 47 in their last three.
This is USC's final road game, and Sun Devil Stadium may not seem quite so intimidating as Autzen Stadium was last weekend.
According to NCAA statistics, ASU is playing to 62.1 percent of Sun Devil Stadium's 71,705 capacity. That ranks 100th in the nation, but a bigger crowd is expected for Saturday night's game.
After the trip to Tempe, USC closes the regular season against Stanford, UCLA and Arizona. Surprisingly, the Cardinal and the Wildcats are ahead of USC in the conference standings heading into the stretch.
But if USC wins its remaining games, it will give itself a shot at an eighth straight Bowl Championship Series berth.
Carroll said he hasn't spent much time figuring out the Trojans' revised postseason outlook; instead, he's stressed what the Trojans have to do to beat ASU.
"We don't need the long-range incentives," Carroll said. "We need the short range opportunities to be maximized."