With USC ineligible for the postseason, Arizona State could be the favorite to reach the inaugural Pac-12 championship game out of the South Division.
The Sun Devils begin conference play Saturday night when they try to end their 11-game losing streak to the visiting No. 23 Trojans.
Arizona State (2-1) was ranked 22nd last week before a 17-14 loss at Illinois, but coach Dennis Erickson is focused on quickly turning the page to conference play against an opponent the Sun Devils haven’t beaten since 1999.
USC (3-0, 1-0) played in the first Pac-12 game Sept. 10 and won 23-14 at home over newcomer Utah – the only conference victory for a South team so far.
“To us, that’s what it’s all about is trying to win the South, trying to get into that playoff game and trying to go to the Rose Bowl,” Erickson said. “It just happens to be USC the first game and they’re a really good football team.”
Last year’s 34-33 road loss may have been the most frustrating in the series for Arizona State. The Sun Devils rallied from a 15-point second-half deficit to take a 33-29 lead with 6:59 left, only to have a blocked extra point returned for two points before allowing a winning field goal.
“As far as pressure, they’re all pressure,” Erickson said. “Playing USC is playing USC. Our players are very aware where that school is located.”
The Trojans, who beat Syracuse 38-17 last Saturday, will be on the road for the first time, and coach Lane Kiffin thinks the Sun Devils will provide a tougher test than his first three foes.
“This is definitely the best team of the four because they can hurt you in all areas,” Kiffin said. “They’re so explosive offensively. (The) defense under coach Erickson, they’ve had a ton of touchdown returns while he’s been there.”
Both teams have quarterbacks with more than 100 pass attempts through three games.
USC’s Matt Barkley tied a career high with five touchdown passes against the Orange, throwing for 324 yards with no interceptions.
“It’s about time. It kind of felt like Trojan football again,” Barkley said. “If they’re going to leave guys open, we’re going to exploit that.”
Brock Osweiler, the tallest FBS quarterback at 6-foot-8, is looking for a better effort after he threw for 256 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions last Saturday. He’s not worried about how Barkley will fare.
“I don’t get caught up in quarterback matchups and what their offense does,” Osweiler said. “I’m just focused on our offense and the defense we’re playing that week.”
Barkley was sacked a career-high four times while throwing for 215 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions last year against Arizona State.
USC’s defense allowed 400.0 yards per game in 2010, but the Trojans have added an infusion of talent and are yielding an average of 317.3 yards this year, ranking third in the Pac-12.
“The impact from the two freshmen linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard have really made a big difference,” Erickson said. “We tried to recruit both of them.”
Arizona State’s Junior Onyeali was the conference’s defensive freshman of the year last season, but the defensive end was injured against Illinois and is expected to miss at least six weeks – and possibly the rest of the season – due to torn knee cartilage.
The Trojans won three of five road conference games a year ago, and have four scheduled in 2011.
“They’re a great team, and they’re really great when they play at home,” Kiffin said of Arizona State. “So we’re going to have to go in there and get ready to stay focused.”
Erickson is preaching similar respect for USC to his team.
“The thing about them is they can’t go to a bowl game,” Erickson said. “They can’t win that championship, so they obviously have a chip on their shoulder.”
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