Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. -- Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict celebrated his 21st birthday in style Saturday, intercepting a Matt Barkley pass to set up a touchdown that allowed the Sun Devils to forge a 21-3 halftime lead.
Barkley, who played at Santa Ana Mater Dei High, told The Times this week that Burfict was a “dirty player.”
But Burfict, the former Corona Centennial High star, made a clean pick of a second-quarter pass and returned it 36 yards. Barkley tackled Burfict on the play.
Burfict got up, then reached down and helped Barkley to his feet.
Unlike Burfict, USC’s linebacker corps entered the game quietly. But the Trojans’ unit is garnering respect.
Senior Chris Galippo has been performing well since being reinstalled as the starting middle linebacker. The surprise has been the performance of outside linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard.
Both of the redshirt freshmen made key plays in the Trojans’ first three victories.
Bailey, a converted safety, had a team-best nine tackles in last week’s victory over Syracuse.
“At first I wasn’t too high on it because I had never played linebacker in my life,” he said of the position switch. “But [coaches] told me I would have a fair shot to play, so I just accepted the challenge and it turned out I ended up starting.”
The 6-foot Bailey, who came to USC from Lakewood High, weighed 198 pounds when he began his transformation into a linebacker. He has added about 10 pounds of muscle and utilizes the skills he developed at safety.
“I put on a little bit of weight and figured out ways to use my speed so I don’t have to endure so much contact,” Bailey said. “Having a nose for the ball definitely has helped me make some plays in the first few games.”
Pullard, 6 feet and 225 pounds, is from Crenshaw High. He had a key sack against Utah and also had seven tackles against Syracuse.
“We all have speed,” he said of the linebackers. “It’s just a matter of how we use it on the field. So far, so good.”
Freshman tailback Amir Carlisle was one of the most impressive players in training camp, but an ankle injury slowed him near the end and prevented him from playing in the first three games.
But the 5-10, 180-pound Carlisle looked sharp in practices last week, and he was the second tailback in the game for USC. He had two carries for 14 yards and one reception, which he fumbled.
About two hours before Saturday night’s kickoff, Arizona State students streamed into their seats, several bearing painted signs.
“Have fun at your bowl game! Oh wait,” read one.
“You can’t spell sanctions without SC,” read another.
And, “Average USC alum salary: $80,000. Average USC football player salary: A lot more.”
During USC’s final possession of the first quarter, the elements turned against them, a dust storm swirling into the stadium.
The Trojans were penalized for a false start and Barkley was sacked for a six-yard loss, forcing USC to punt.
Arizona State’s football team has uniforms that can be worn in 48 combinations.
The Sun Devils wore maroon jerseys with gold numbers, maroon helmets with a gold logo and maroon pants Saturday night.