LOS ANGELES (AP) — Dennis Erickson and Monte Kiffin are both spending the back sides of their coaching careers trying to get headstrong teenagers to understand the same concepts they taught to millionaire professionals for many years.
Yet both Arizona State’s head coach and Southern California’s defensive guru love what they do and how they’re doing it, even during seasons that are far from ideal.
Erickson’s Sun Devils (4-4, 2-3 Pac-10) will attempt to stay on course for bowl eligibility when they visit the Kiffin family’s Trojans (5-3, 2-3) at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
Erickson’s deep-threat offense built around quarterback Steven Threet hasn’t been what he envisioned before the season, although the Sun Devils made progress last week in a 42-0 win over Washington State. Meanwhile, Kiffin’s first defense at USC has been inconsistent at best, giving up 599 yards and 53 points to top-ranked Oregon last week.
Erickson and Kiffin have known each other for years, going against each other during their NFL careers. Erickson also knows Lane Kiffin, whose offensive background — and a sometimes brash attitude — bear similarities to Erickson in his younger days.
“I know him. I like him a lot,” Erickson said about Lane Kiffin. “In the time I spent with him, he is a good guy. He has a tough situation with the probation stuff coming down, (but) that place recruits itself. It always has and always will. They got players and they didn’t lose a lot of them. The probation aspect will probably show in a couple of years, not necessarily now, because they have the whole team coming back.”
After road losses to Oregon State and California threw them off track last month, the Sun Devils need a strong finish to qualify for a bowl. Erickson realizes the odds are against it, particularly with games against ranked Stanford and Arizona still looming.
That just makes this trip to the Coliseum even more vital to Arizona State, which hasn’t beaten USC since 1999.
“Our goal is to go to a bowl game, and we don’t have much room for error,” Erickson said. “We have to prepare ourselves and become more consistent. We are playing on the road, and we should be used to that by now.”
While the Sun Devils steeled themselves for that late run at a bowl berth, the Trojans spent all week trying to avoid a letdown after last week’s loss to the Ducks. USC took a third-quarter lead on Oregon but couldn’t hold it, losing at home for the fourth time in seven games following a 47-1 stretch at the Coliseum for the once-proud Pac-10 power.
Lane Kiffin has been pleased by his players’ focus, even after failing in their best chance to grab national attention during the first season of their two-year bowl ban.
“I don’t really relate last week’s game to the next game, but we’ve got a lot of motivation to come out and play well,” said quarterback Matt Barkley, who passed for 264 yards with two interceptions against Oregon. “We always try to come back even stronger after a loss, and it’s going to be tough against this defense.”
USC’s defense should be stronger with the return of linebacker Malcolm Smith from a two-game injury absence, yet the Kiffins essentially reopened competition for several starting jobs in the back end of their defense during the week, declining to announce the results until Saturday.
The defense’s flaws have been USC’s biggest problem this season, with the linebacking corps mostly playing poorly and a young secondary getting exposed. Arizona State is built to test defensive backs, with Erickson always eager to throw long.
“They’ve got a lot of ways to beat you downfield, so we’ve been preparing for that all week,” safety Jawanza Starling said. “They’re still going to try it, but we’re going to be prepared.”
Barkley is wary of a Sun Devils defense led by linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a Los Angeles-area product who committed to USC before heading to Tempe. A big chunk of the Arizona State roster hails from the Southland, and the Sun Devils’ annual trip is a chance to show off in front of friends and family.
“When Pete Carroll was there, they used to have unbelievable teams,” said Arizona State freshman Kyle Middlebrooks, a tailback, receiver and kick returner from Fountain Valley, Calif. “It was just something that I always used to watch, and think it would have been cool to be a part of. But now that I’m here, I want to go back and get them now, go back to California and get a win, because I can brag about it.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)