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Frightening and Thunder

Trojans get a major scare, trailing by 18, before running game rumbles to rescue

October 02, 2005|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

TEMPE, Ariz. — No one said it was going to be easy.

Not Pete Carroll, who started training camp by showing his USC players video clips of near disasters from last season.

Not Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart, who knows what it feels like to take a hit against Arizona State.

And not the members of a USC secondary who come under fire every week.

On Saturday, top-ranked USC took the hard, hot road to a 38-28 victory over 14th-ranked Arizona State, overcoming an 18-point deficit for their biggest comeback win in 31 years.

The victory, achieved before a sellout crowd of 71,706 at Sun Devil Stadium, improved the Trojans' record to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in the Pacific 10 Conference. It also extended their winning streak to a school- and conference-record 26 games and kept them on track for a possible third consecutive national title.

"We're getting there, we're starting to grow," Carroll said. "We're going through the struggles you have to go through and the kind of challenges that you have to go through to become really strong. And one of these days we'll be pretty good."

USC trailed, 21-3, at halftime, but overcame the Sun Devils by getting four of their five interceptions in the second half and putting the ball in the hands of LenDale White and Reggie Bush in the final two quarters. The two juniors each eclipsed 100 yards rushing for the second game in a row. Both also scored twice on long runs in the second half as USC outscored the Sun Devils, 35-7, over the final 30 minutes.

"These are games you like being in because it defines character and defines a champion," said White, who rushed for 167 of his 197 yards in the second half.

Said Bush, who rushed for 102 of his 158 yards in the second half: "Me and LenDale wanted to pound the ball, take the game over and make them quit."

Arizona State Coach Dirk Koetter said the heat -- the temperature was 98 degrees at kickoff -- got to the Sun Devils.

"Our defense played a tremendous first half. Then we definitely wore down," Koetter said. "They were just on the field too much. It was too hot."

Just as it did last week against Oregon, when the Trojans fell behind by 13 points, USC's defense persevered while the Trojans' high-powered offense sputtered through a penalty-filled first half before hitting its stride in the final 30 minutes.

It was the greatest comeback by a USC team since 1974, when the Trojans overcame a 24-0 deficit and beat Notre Dame, 55-24.

Senior cornerback John Walker intercepted two passes -- the first of his career -- including one in the end zone with 1:29 remaining to secure the victory. Cornerback Justin Wyatt, safety Kevin Ellison and middle linebacker Oscar Lua also intercepted passes by Sun Devil quarterback Sam Keller, who completed 26 of 45 for 347 yards and two touchdowns but was sacked five times.

"Week in and week out, people are always doubting, saying that the DBs are going to get torched," Wyatt said. "Hopefully, they leave us alone now."

Lua said the defense knew it was only a matter of time before the offense got started.

"They showed up in the second half like they always do," Lua said. "They met us halfway."

Arizona State (3-2 overall, 1-1 in the Pac-10) was hoping for a repeat of 1996, when the Sun Devils knocked off a top-ranked Nebraska team riding a 26-game winning streak and going for a third straight national title.

The Sun Devils appeared as if they might be on their way when linebacker Robert James hammered Leinart with 6:15 left in the first quarter after the Heisman Trophy winner threw incomplete. James drew a penalty for the late hit, but the blow paid dividends for Arizona State.

Leinart overcame first-half knee and ankle injuries against Arizona State two years ago in a victory that started the Trojans' winning streak. But he appeared shaken for most of the first half Saturday as the offense staggered and USC accumulated nine penalties for 60 yards.

"I don't know if I was all there the whole game," said Leinart, who finished 23 for 39 for 258 yards with no touchdown passes.

Arizona State built its first-half lead on Terry Richardson's 84-yard punt return, Sam Keller's seven-yard touchdown pass to Jamaal Lewis and a five-yard run by Keegan Herring.

But in keeping with their custom since starting their win streak here two years ago, the Trojans regrouped at halftime and came out firing.

"They believe that they cannot be beat," Carroll said of his players. "They would not let it happen. There was too much will in that room to let it happen and so we did everything right."

USC took the first possession of the second half and moved 80 yards in seven plays, White cutting the deficit to 11 points with a 32-yard touchdown run.

Arizona State had a chance to stem the tide when the Sun Devils recovered a fumble by receiver Dwayne Jarrett, but Wyatt intercepted a pass by Keller on the very next play, setting up a 24-yard touchdown run by Bush to pull the Trojans to within 21-17 with 8:29 left in the third quarter.

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