Before the season, USC’s back-to-back games against Arizona State and Arizona were regarded as one of the most important stretches in the Trojans’ schedule.
It became more significant after Arizona upset second-ranked Oregon, setting the stage for USC’s game next week against the unbeaten and soon-to-be ranked Wildcats at Tucson.
Of course, the stakes will be decidedly lower if No. 16 USC cannot get past Arizona State in the Trojans’ Pac-12 Conference South Division opener Saturday at the Coliseum.
But this is one matchup USC players will not overlook.
Not after what happened last season in Tempe, Ariz., and at LAX a few hours later.
A year ago this week, (DESK: Sept. 28) Arizona State routed USC, 62-41, at Sun Devil Stadium. Shortly after the Trojans’ chartered plane landed in Los Angeles, Athletic Director Pat Haden fired Coach Lane Kiffin at the airport.
Trojans players said this week that they are long past the events that transpired after the game.
The 62 points? The memories remain fresh.
“That’s definitely motivation,” linebacker Anthony Sarao said.
“We’re not going to let that happen again,” said Su’a Cravens, who has been moved from safety to linebacker for the second consecutive game."We should never give up 60 points.”
First-year USC Coach Steve Sarkisian was not around for last season’s meltdown, which included a 28-point third quarter by Arizona State.
Like most coaches, Sarkisian typically would say past events have nothing to do with the immediate task at hand.
But Sarkisian acknowledged this week Trojans players could not ignore what happened against Arizona State last season.
“Nobody likes giving up 62 points — at any level,” Sarkisian said. “So, hopefully, that affects our pride and it affects our preparation. And the fact that it shouldn’t happen again.”
USC is 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-12 after last week’s impressive 35-10 victory over Oregon State at the Coliseum.
The performance helped ease some of the sting from a Sept. 13 loss at Boston College, a defeat that knocked the Trojans out of the top 10 in the Associated Press poll.
Quarterback Cody Kessler continues to play nearly mistake-free, and the Trojans, against Oregon State, produced a tenfold increase in rushing yardage after their anemic 20-yard effort against Boston College.
Cravens’ interception return for a touchdown against Oregon State ignited a defense that has been led by lineman Leonard Williams.
The Trojans on Saturday will face an Arizona State offense that will be without quarterback Taylor Kelly.
Sun Devils Coach Todd Graham said Thursday the senior would not play because of a foot injury that also sidelined him last week against UCLA. That was welcome news to USC, which last season mostly watched as Kelly passed for 351 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 79 yards.
Junior Mike Bercovici, who passed for 488 yards and three touchdowns against the Bruins, will start for the Sun Devils.
Like USC, Arizona State knows what it feels like to give up 62 points.
The Sun Devils just lost to UCLA, 62-27, at Sun Devil Stadium. That dropped Arizona State to 3-1 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12.
It also knocked the previously 15th-ranked Sun Devils out of the top 25.
So Arizona State is hoping to bounce back with another victory over the Trojans. Last season’s was among the most noteworthy in Graham’s one-plus seasons with the Sun Devils, who went on to win the Pac-12 South and finished 10-4 in 2013.
Graham knows USC is eager to avenge the defeat.
“That was a big win for us and, in turn, our guys have confidence they can beat them because of that,” Graham said. “Obviously, their guys would like to right that wrong.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein