Jake Plummer is gone, and so is the No. 4 ranking Arizona State had as it rolled toward the Rose Bowl and an 11-1 record last season.
But for USC, the memories of a 48-35 double-overtime loss are still close to the surface.
“We feel this is a grudge match,” Trojan cornerback Brian Kelly said this week as USC prepared for today’s game at Sun Devil Stadium.
There is more than vengeance at stake, since USC’s season could turn on the outcome.
Win, and the Trojans will have a 1-1 record in the Pacific 10 Conference and a winning record overall for the first time since last October.
Lose, and they’ll take a reeling team into South Bend next week where Notre Dame will be bent on salvaging something from a train wreck of a season by humiliating the Trojans.
“It’s almost like the NCAA tournament. It’s do or die,” Kelly said.
Last season’s game was a classic.
“The single event of the game itself, that was one of the all-time best games I’ve ever coached in,” said Arizona State Coach Bruce Snyder, whose team has started this season 3-2 and is 1-1 in the Pac-10 after a victory over Oregon State and loss to Washington. “The people in this valley who were at the game almost unanimously say that’s the best game they’ve ever seen in Sun Devil Stadium.
“Just about everything happened in it. There was a kickoff return for a touchdown, long drives, double overtime. Of course, it has a pleasant memory because we were fortunate enough to win it.”
USC took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, but Arizona State tied it in the second on two touchdown runs by Terry Battle. After a scoreless third, the teams traded touchdowns back and forth.
R. Jay Soward’s electrifying 98-yard kickoff return gave USC a 28-21 lead--one that Arizona State erased with a 78-yard touchdown drive that forced overtime.
It went to a second overtime before the Sun Devils scored on their possession, then won the game on a controversial play when Arizona State cornerback Courtney Jackson raced 85 yards after recovering the ball on what was ruled a fumble. USC still believes the play should have been ruled an incompletion because Brad Otton was throwing a shovel pass.
USC and Arizona State don’t bring quite the same offensive ability into the game this season, with Plummer and Otton gone.
Arizona State has been getting by with defense, giving up only 14.2 points a game.
USC has been strong defensively at times and leads the Pac-10 in rushing defense, but has yet to face a team as committed to running as Arizona State. The Trojans have also had some notable lapses on big pass plays over the middle.
Youth is the standard on offense.
Along with sophomore quarterback John Fox, the Trojans will start freshman Malaefou MacKenzie and redshirt freshman Ted Iacenda in the backfield. (MacKenzie is taking LaVale Woods’ place because of an ankle injury, and it will be the first time since Scott Lockwood started in 1987 that a true freshman has started at tailback for USC.)
Arizona State’s quarterback, Ryan Kealy, is a freshman still trying to find his way--and getting battered at times. He was sacked nine times in a 26-14 loss to No. 10 Washington last week.
The players likely as any to decide it are the game-breakers--Trojan sophomore R. Jay Soward and Sun Devil sophomore J.R. Redmond, who is from Carson.
Redmond, a 6-foot, 200-pound tailback who also returns punts and kicks and lines up at receiver now and again, is sixth in the nation in all-purpose yardage with 188.8 yards a game, including 100 yards a game rushing.
Soward is averaging 100 yards a game receiving and has five touchdowns, including a 95-yard kickoff return and touchdown receptions of 65 and 78 yards.
“We start looking at USC with R. Jay Soward,” Snyder said. “What a big playmaker he is. He’s really capturing our attention.”
USC has R. Jay, but Arizona State has J.R.
“J.R. Redmond is really a special player,” Snyder said. “We would like to give him the ball almost every time if we could. . . . He might easily be our best wide receiver if we played him there. He could probably be one of the better defensive backs in the league. We happen to be playing him at tailback. He returns all of our punts and kickoffs and is just terrific with the ball in his hands.”
Soward has a thing--or three--on Redmond, with three kickoff returns for touchdowns in his career. Redmond has yet to break one.
“I’m still waiting on that,” Redmond said. “We watch films, and I’ve always been one man away. I guess I’ve got to make one man miss this week. I would like to make a lot of noise on special teams.”
Redmond has even studied Soward.
“He made it look so easy,” Redmond said. “You have to give respect where respect is due. He’s just gifted. Once he get the ball in his hands, he makes things happen. I put on our highlight tape from last year and still watch his kickoff return.”
USC just doesn’t want to see a rerun of last year’s final score--or record.
“Our football team has to steel itself to play seven straight Saturdays as close to our potential as we can, then look up and see where we are,” Coach John Robinson said. “As I look at our football team going into this part of the season, the one thing I haven’t seen is a total football game from us. Cal was probably close to it, but we weren’t scintillating in the second half. For us to be successful the rest of the year, we have to go out and play a total football game well.”
USC at ARIZONA STATE
12:30 p.m., Channel 7,
Radio: KLSX (97.1-FM)
UCLA at OREGON
3:30 p.m., FX
Radio: AM 1150