USC preparing for worst from ASU
Trojans know Sun Devils, led by Burfict, will look to bait them into shenanigans
LOS ANGELES -- The job of the USC Trojans' service-team defense is to mimic what the offense is going to see on Saturdays.
At Tuesday's practice, here's what the coaches instructed the guys in the black jerseys to do, according to quarterback Matt Barkley: "Guys were popping guys left and right after the whistle."
This week's game at Arizona State is a lot of things to the Trojans. It's their first road test. It's a chance to put their imprint on the Pac-12 race even if, ultimately, NCAA sanctions mean they can't win it. It's a chance to keep climbing up the AP Top 25.
But beyond all those abstractions, it's personal.
Most of the Trojans are familiar with the ASU defense -- dented by injuries, but still talented and feisty -- and its playmaking linebacker, Vontaze Burfict. The Trojans view Burfict as the ringleader of a unit of cheap-shot artists. How do we know this? Well, mainly because USC is making no effort to hide it.
"We have clips of these guys just mauling guys after the play," offensive lineman Matt Kalil said. "I think the big thing is for the young guys. They're over there getting hit after plays and they may try to fight the other guy, but they don't realize we're doing that in preparation. If they hit you, just walk away."
Burfict is the Pac-12's sack leader and he might be the best middle linebacker in the nation. A junior from Corona Centennial High, he already has drawn comparisons to perennial NFL All-Pro Ray Lewis. Like some other elite linebackers, he often inhabits that hazy area between controlled violence and mayhem. He's a YouTube sensation, but an occasional liability to his own team because of his tendency to go off script.
To USC, he's the focal point of the Trojans' blocking schemes as well as the object of their hostility. Burfict, contacted through an ASU spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story.
"If I see him standing around, I'll drill him," Kalil said. "I drilled him a couple times last year, so I'm sure he'll be looking for me to get a little revenge."
Burfict committed a late hit against USC last season that extended the Trojans' winning drive. ASU coach Dennis Erickson briefly benched Burfict last October after an accumulation of personal-foul penalties. If things do get chippy Saturday, it could test a young USC team that has had its own issues with discipline. That's why coach Lane Kiffin encouraged the service team to scuffle after the whistle in practice this week. He wants to see how the offense, with five new starters, reacts. It was the second time since he took over at USC that Kiffin encouraged the service team to hit after the whistle. He did it before the Hawaii opener last September.
Playing on the road for the first time, the Trojans could make things difficult on themselves if they get buried in penalties. As Kiffin pointed out, it's typically the second late hit that draws the flag.
"Every game, there's been something we've pulled off tape to show them," Kiffin said. "We've had a personal foul on special teams, offense and defense. We just have to learn from those situations and be composed."
USC tailback Marc Tyler said ASU defensive players twisted his ankle after plays last season. He said Burfict spends a lot of time talking to the opponent during games.
"That's when you talk back to them, tell them just play football, but he's going to do what he's going to do," Tyler said. "We've just got to go in there and be physical and get up early on them."
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The ASU defense was supposed to be among the most fearsome in the nation. It was in the top 20 a year ago in forcing offenses to punt after three downs and it had 143 plays last season that resulted in either no gain or negative yardage. But injuries have been costly. Cornerback Omar Bolden (knee), defensive end Junior Onyeali (knee) and linebacker Brandon Magee (Achilles tendon) all are out. Safety Eddie Elder is questionable because of a concussion.
USC hasn't lost to the Sun Devils since 1999. It hasn't lost in the desert since 1997. If it can keep its composure and escape this weekend with a win, it would set itself up well in the South division of the Pac-12, where ASU was thought to be its biggest rival. The Trojans are ineligible to play in the conference title game but could make an early statement about the new realignment -- for as long as it lasts -- if they win their division.
"We want to beat all these guys, so when it comes right down to it, we can say we would have been in that game," Kalil said. "We would have won it."
They may want to beat all these guys, but it appears they want to beat some more than others.
Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.