TEMPE, Ariz. — Top-ranked USC is back where the streak began.
The Trojans' comeback victory over Arizona State here two years ago started Coach Pete Carroll's program on a run of 25 consecutive wins.
The Trojans have won two national championships during that span and are off to a fast start in their quest for an unprecedented third in a row.
A sellout crowd is expected today at Sun Devil Stadium to see if 14th-ranked Arizona State can end a streak that USC began with a 37-17 victory over the Sun Devils on Oct. 4, 2003.
Trojan players and coaches, however, mostly refuse to acknowledge the streak.
"We don't like to lose, obviously, but we don't really think about the streak," said quarterback Matt Leinart, who overcame knee and ankle injuries against Arizona State two years ago and kick-started his own historic career. "We just go and play and the games keep stacking up."
USC's last defeat -- a triple-overtime loss at California on Sept. 27, 2003 -- is what resonates with Trojan upperclassmen.
"A terrible feeling," junior safety Darnell Bing said.
Senior defensive end Frostee Rucker said, "Hopefully, I don't ever have to feel that way again."
Arizona State is hoping to duplicate the feat the Sun Devils achieved in 1996, when they upset a top-ranked Nebraska team that was riding a 26-game winning streak and going for a third straight national title.
"We already know that a lot of people are thinking that USC is not going to lose," Arizona State receiver Derek Hagan said. "In our minds, we feel like we can win this game. If we come out and play four quarters of football like we have been doing, executing on both sides of the ball, we can win."
Arizona State is coming off a 42-24 victory in its conference opener at Oregon State. The win improved the Sun Devils' record to 3-1, the only loss, 35-31, to Louisiana State.
Junior Sam Keller has picked up where record-setting quarterback Andrew Walter left off. Keller leads the nation with 1,443 yards passing and has thrown for 16 touchdowns. He directs an offense that is averaging 47 points a game and is ranked fourth nationally, gaining an average of 591.8 yards a game.
"He gets rid of the ball quicker than Walter did. That's the part of their game that is improved," Carroll said.
Arizona State hopes to vastly improve on the performance it turned in last year against the Trojans. The Sun Devils arrived at the Coliseum ranked 15th but got blown out, 45-7.
"Seven minutes into the game, it was over," Arizona State Coach Dirk Koetter said this week.
Koetter said his players were embarrassed.
"All the good things we did last year pale because people want to bring up that we didn't show up when it counted against USC," he said.
Arizona State's challenge is no easier this time around.
With the exception of the first 1 1/2 quarters last week against Oregon, USC's offense has been nearly unstoppable.
Leinart, ranked second nationally in passing efficiency, could be in the midst of a second consecutive Heisman Trophy run. The senior directs an offense that is averaging nearly 616 yards and 59 points a game.
Running back Reggie Bush produced 267 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns last week in a career-high 30 touches. And running back LenDale White, who had a breakout performance here two years ago, is averaging more than six yards a carry.
The defense was regarded as USC's possible weak link, but the unit has performed well, for the most part, in victories over Hawaii, Arkansas and Oregon. The Trojans' first unit has surrendered only one touchdown in each of the victories.
"Coming home from Oregon State the other night, I popped in the tape and I was hoping to see a defense decimated by graduation -- and I didn't see that at all," Koetter said. "I saw a defense that is very fast and quick. We haven't seen a defense with that kind of speed from man No. 1 through man No. 11."
USC was able to overcome early miscues and depth issues in the secondary in a 45-13 comeback victory over Oregon last week. But Keller and Co. pose a greater challenge than Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens.
USC could be thin on the defensive line. Starting tackle LaJuan Ramsey suffered an ankle sprain against Oregon and will probably be limited today. Redshirt freshman Fili Moala will play, and possibly start, in his place.
USC and Arizona State must deal with an air temperature that is expected to be near 100 degrees at kickoff.
USC players said they benefited from hot conditions during training camp in August and for the opener at Hawaii.
"It shouldn't be any problem for us," safety Scott Ware said. "Our conditioning is great. We're in fantastic shape. That is what should help us out the most."
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Climbing the charts
Derek Hagan, a senior receiver from Palmdale, has become Arizona State's all-time leader in receptions and yards receiving. The career reception leaders in the Pacific 10 Conference:
*--* Player, School Years Rec Yards Troy Walters, Stanford '96-99 248 4,047 Reggie Williams, Washington '01-03 243 3598 Bobby Wade, Arizona '99-02 230 3,351 DeRonnie Pitts, Stanford '97-00 228 3,023 Dennis Northcutt, Arizona '96-99 223 3,252 Darrin Nelson, Stanford '77-81 223 2,469 James Newsom, Oregon State '00-03 213 3,572 Derek Hagan, Arizona State '02-05 207 3,106 Keary Colbert, USC '00-03 207 2,964 Kareem Kelly, USC '99-02 204 3,104 Johnnie Morton, USC '90-93 201 3,201