USC vs. Arizona State: Motivation could be the key issue for Trojans against the Sun Devils

November used to be USC’s best month, a stretch when the Trojans never lost during former coach Pete Carroll’s first eight seasons. That streak ended in 2009. Lane Kiffin’s Trojans hope to start another against Arizona State, which has not won at the Coliseum since 1999. Staff writer Gary Klein looks at the game’s key issues:

Motivating factors

With no bowl game to look forward to, and a lost opportunity to upset top-ranked Oregon behind them, the Trojans begin a season-ending five-game stretch.

The late kickoff time and the absence of a big-event vibe are expected to result in a smaller crowd at the Coliseum.

USC players say they remain motivated to play hard and finish the season strong, but a slow start against the Sun Devils would not be a positive indicator.


Arizona State needs two victories to guarantee a bowl bid and keep the heat off Coach Dennis Erickson.

The Sun Devils, with a roster full of Southern Californians, have a 10-game losing streak against the Trojans.

Arms race

Matt Barkley’s three-game streak of games without an interception ended when Oregon picked off two of his passes in a 53-32 victory over USC last week.

The sophomore fell to fourth in the Pacific 10 Conference and 24th nationally in passing efficiency. He has passed for 21 touchdowns, with six interceptions.

Last year against Arizona State, Barkley completed seven passes and USC was held to 258 yards, its lowest output since 2004.

Arizona State’s Steven Threet leads the Pac-10 in yards passing, averaging 268 a game. The Michigan transfer is sixth in efficiency, having passed for 14 touchdowns with 13 interceptions.

In last week’s 42-0 victory over Washington State, Threet completed 26 of 32 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.

No rush here

Kiffin called out his offensive line this week, calling USC’s running game “overrated.”

The Trojans average 200.5 yards a game, which ranks third in the Pac-10.

Senior Michael Reardon is expected to replace Butch Lewis at left guard. Tailbacks Marc Tyler, Allen Bradford, Dillon Baxter and C.J. Gable appear recovered from injuries that have slowed them the last few weeks.

Arizona State is eighth in the conference in rushing. Deantre Lewis, a freshman from Norco, has averaged 57.6 yards a game.

Hit and run

USC’s defense should be buoyed by the return of linebacker Malcolm Smith. There also could be lineup changes if coaches decide to make Chris Galippo the starting middle linebacker and Malcolm Jones a starting safety.

Arizona State’s offense is regarded as pedestrian, in pace anyway, when compared to frenetic Oregon, which piled up 599 yards against USC.

The Trojans must get pressure on the largely immobile Threet and improve their pass defense, which ranks 114th among 120 major college teams.

Arizona State’s defense is fast and aggressive — sometimes overly so. The Sun Devils average a conference-worst eight penalties a game.

Linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Magee, defensive lineman Junior Onyeali and cornerback Omar Bolden lead a unit that ranks first in the conference and ninth nationally in third-down defense.

Special teams

USC’s Ronald Johnson is the Pac-10 leader in punt returns, averaging 20.2 yards, and Robert Woods is fourth in kickoff returns, averaging 25.4 yards.

Joe Houston has made five of nine field-goal attempts, and Jake Harfman has averaged 42.2 yards a punt.

Arizona State’s Thomas Weber has made 10 of 16 field-goal attempts, including a 52-yarder. Trevor Hankins leads the Pac-10 with a per-punt average of 47.1 yards.