It has been 25 years since Arizona State joined the Pac-10 Conference, and still the Sun Devils are measuring themselves against mighty Southern California.
When the teams meet for the 20th time today at Sun Devil Stadium, ASU will attempt to restore some legitimacy to those preseason claims of prowess while the Trojans try to stay in the hunt for the national championship.
USC is still the team to beat in the Pac-10, just as it was when a successful, but largely unheralded transfer from the Western Athletic Conference played host to tailback Charles White, safety Ronnie Lott and coach John Robinson and upset the mighty men of Troy, 20-7.
The year was 1978. Three years removed from a stunning Fiesta Bowl win over Nebraska, ASU had just cemented a deal that would lead it and Arizona from the college football backwaters to the national spotlight.
But the road to legitimacy got off to a bumpy start when the Devils opened their Pac-10 history with a 51-26 trouncing at the hands of lowly Washington State in Pullman, Wash.
“I remember the fans screaming 'Back to the WAC! Back to the WAC!' said defensive end Al Harris, who later earned All-America status before beginning an NFL career with the Chicago Bears. “It was absolutely humiliating."
Despite wins in their next two games and a 4-1 record, the loss set the tone for the Devils' Pac-10 home opener, Oct. 14 against the Trojans.
“I think most people thought we were going to get slaughtered, including our friends and family members who lied to us about it during the week," Harris said. “If I was them, I would have thought the same thing."
Southern California came into the game off an impressive 24-14 beating of No. 1 Alabama and coach Bear Bryant at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. The win, and a victory the following week against Michigan State, helped vault the Trojans to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll.
The Trojans' talent was unmatched. Twenty of the 22 players who started on offense and defense against ASU went on to NFL careers, and the 1978 team shared the national championship with the Crimson Tide.
“They had never played Arizona State before, and they didn't know who the hell Arizona State was," then-coach Frank Kush said. “A lot of the kids they had on their team, we had recruited, but they didn't give us much of a look-see. They were never really interested in coming to Arizona State. We were a backup plan."
Then-USC coach Robinson insists his team never took ASU lightly.
“We knew they were a great football team," he said.
But the Trojans had a pair of lethal handicaps that day. Behind the running of 1979 Heisman Trophy winner White and the blocking of fullback Lynn Cain and tight end James Hunter, Robinson dared teams to stop USC — and they rarely did. But USC came into the ASU game minus its starting and third-string centers, and eventually lost its second stringer to an injury, forcing a tackle into that role.
“I think we fumbled the center exchange 13 or 14 times, although we recovered a bunch of them," said Robinson, now coach at UNLV. “We were crawling on our hands and knees the entire game, and we just never got going against their great defense."
Despite an inability to run, Robinson refused to abandon his bread-and-butter plays. ASU defensive coordinator Larry Kentera decided to used that stubbornness to his advantage.
“Coach Kentera told us they basically ran three plays: a sweep, a pitch and a dive," cornerback Kim Anderson said. “He figured out that if their tight end couldn't get off the line, they couldn't create the gap and we could shut them down."
To neutralize Hunter, Kentera assigned Harris, the team's leader and best defensive player, to shadow the big tight end wherever he went. But Kentera's plans almost went awry on the opening kickoff when ASU's Alvin Moore fumbled the return and USC recovered at the Devils' 16-yard line.
With Harris leading the way, the defense was more than ready for the challenge. On USC's first offensive play, defensive back Ray Williams annihilated Cain's lead block and the Devils stuffed White in the backfield. After another stuff and a third-down incompletion, the Trojans mishandled the snap on a field-goal attempt, allowing ASU to take over at its 40 with the game still scoreless.
“That first hit by Ray Williams set the tone for the entire game. We knew we could play with them after that," defensive end Bob Kohrs said. “You could hear the shot throughout the stadium and it just got everybody revved up."
Including the 71,138 fans in attendance, which at that time set a stadium record.
“When we came on the field in the third quarter — and this is the honest to God's truth — the crowd was so loud that my helmet started vibrating," Harris said. “It was a tremendous adrenaline rush, but it was scary because it felt like the whole stadium was going to come down."
ASU fed off the intensity.
“I remember one play where (linebacker) Jeff McIntyre hit Cain and Cain was just laying on the ground staring up at the sky while we're standing over him talking smack like ‘uh-huh. That's right,' " Anderson said. “They had that damn fight song going and that horse walking around but after we started playing you never heard that band again because they didn't have nothin' to cheer about."
With the defense setting the tone, quarterback Mark Malone slowly began building on a 3-0 halftime lead.
After Kohrs recovered a fumble at the USC 38, Malone picked up 33 yards on three plays off the option, setting up his 1-yard plunge for a 10-0 lead.
Two possessions later, Anderson intercepted his second pass of the game, at the Trojan 46.
Malone eventually found receiver John Mistler alone in the end zone for a 17-0 bulge.
“I wouldn't say we ever dominated them offensively because they had a great defense," said Malone, who threw for 167 yards and ran for 139. “We just made big plays, and we had guys who hung in there when they were taking big hits.
“I remember one play where I came off play-action or a drop back on a deep, dig route," Malone said. "I'm holding onto the ball for what seemed like forever and then Mistler came out of his break and cleared the ’backer. I'm thinking ‘Man, I've got to get rid of this now,' and as I did, I remember getting just leveled."
The pass was high but Mistler made a spectacular catch between Lott and future Denver Bronco Dennis Smith before getting crushed.
“He comes back to the huddle," Malone said, “with his helmet on crooked and his chin strap on his nose and says, ‘Hey, man, can you get that to me a little earlier?' "
With 33 seconds remaining and ASU leading 20-0, Trojans wideout Dan Garcia beat backup safety David Givens for a 31-yard touchdown reception that spoiled the shutout bid. Southern California had not been shut out since a 3-0 loss to Oregon State in 1967, and went 28 straight games without another loss.
The score was about the only thing that went wrong for ASU that day, but it ruined the postgame celebration.
“We came in pretty excited, but let me tell you, there was no joy in that locker room after Kush got through with us," Mistler said. “He wanted that shutout badly, as we all did."
ASU failed to capitalize on the win, losing two weeks later at Washington. But the team still went 9-3 that season (4-3 in the Pac-10), the same record it had its final season in the WAC. In hindsight, even Kush recognized the magnitude of that historic win over USC. “At the time, the win was so-so, but when I look back at I would have to say it ranks as one of the premier games as far as national recognition," Kush said.
“To beat them so handily showed that this was no fluke," he said. “More than anything I think that win clarified to all the naysayers that we weren't some little desert dweller school any more. Arizona State football had arrived."