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Threatened, but not dethroned

Trojans prove mettle with comeback vs. Sun Devils

Posted: Saturday October 1, 2005 10:53PM; Updated: Sunday October 2, 2005 12:18PM
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LenDale White exploded for nearly 200 rushing yards and two TDs vs. ASU.
LenDale White exploded for nearly 200 rushing yards and two TDs vs. ASU.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

TEMPE, Ariz. -- All across the country Saturday evening, fans of the nation's other national-title aspirants were surely holding up USC's latest near-miss against No. 15 Arizona State as evidence of the Trojans' vulnerability.

The scary truth is, USC has rarely looked stronger than it did against the Sun Devils.

With the exception of last year's Cal game, this was unquestionably the toughest test the Trojans have weathered since beginning their now-26-game winning streak. Playing in near-100 degree desert heat, their Heisman quarterback was dazed by a series of crushing first-half hits, their depleted secondary facing a powerful passing attack, all USC did was go out and stage its biggest comeback in 31 years. Overcoming last week's 13-0 first-half deficit at Oregon was like brushing off lint compared to erasing Saturday's 21-3 halftime deficit -- and late Arizona State rally -- in a four-hour, 38-28 marathon win.

Like last week, USC repeatedly shot itself in the foot with early penalties (eight for 55 yards in the first quarter alone). But this one wasn't entirely self-inflicted. Arizona State, showing far more defensive toughness than the Ducks did, flat-out whipped the Trojans in the first half, repeatedly knocking Matt Leinart to the ground ("Those were the hardest hits I've had in a long time," the still-dazed QB conceded afterward), locking up USC's all-world receivers and picking on its oft-questioned cornerbacks. Unlike the week before, there was no late-first-half surge to foreshadow a second-half onslaught.

But while the Trojans' recent string of dominance is most commonly associated with routs like last year's 55-19 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma, their winning streak has not been without its share of close calls: Virginia Tech. Stanford. Oregon State. UCLA. In 2004 alone. Saturday would prove to be USC's most masterful close-game performance yet.

"We've been through this so many times," said Trojans guard Fred Matua. "When we ran up that [tunnel at halftime], we knew we have 30 more minutes to strap it on. We weren't going to come out here and get our butts kicked. These guys won't let that happen."

In a testament to the depth of its weapons, by the fourth quarter USC had managed to reverse the very things Arizona State exploited in the first half. With their Heisman quarterback not on his A-game, the Trojans simply turned to the nation's most powerful running tandem, LenDale White (19 carries, 197 yards, two touchdowns) and Reggie Bush (17 carries, 158 yards, two TDs), who, along with their blockers, repeatedly gashed the same ASU defensive front that had caused such problems in the first half. With their star receivers, Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, looking out of sync much of the day, fullback David Kirtman went out and caught seven passes for 97 yards. And the same picked-on defensive backs -- Justin WyattJohn Walker and Kevin Ellison -- who looked so vulnerable in the first half stepped up to pick off four Sam Keller passes after halftime.

Most amazing of all, in the fourth quarter, it was the home team, not the visitors, that was clearly gassed. After the Trojans claimed the lead for the first time at 24-21, only to see Keller march ASU down the field to go up 28-24 with 5:57 left, it took USC just five plays to reclaim the lead for good, gaining 71 yards of an 80-yard drive on the ground.