TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) – Arizona State fans will never forget the Sun Devils’ first game against Southern California.

New to the Pac-10, the Sun Devils ambushed then-No. 2 USC 20-7 on Oct. 14, 1978, in Tempe.

What came next typifies the two programs. The Sun Devils lost their next game by 34 points to Washington and finished fourth in the conference. USC bounced back to claim a share of the national title.

It set a pattern that’s held for nearly three decades.

Arizona State has occasionally given USC headaches – the Sun Devils are 9-14 overall (.391) against the Trojans, and UCLA is the only Pac-10 school with a higher winning percentage against USC. But the Sun Devils haven’t come close to matching USC’s tradition or consistency.

So ASU devised a new strategy: if you can’t beat ’em, hire ’em.

Two years ago, ASU tapped Lisa Love, a veteran USC athletics administrator, to be its athletic director. Love later signed Dennis Erickson, whom USC had courted in 2000.

Those moves paved the way for one of the bigger games in the series between the schools. Tonight in Sun Devil Stadium, No. 7 Arizona State (9-1, 6-1 Pac-10) meets the 11th-ranked Trojans (8-2, 5-2) in a game that could determine a Rose Bowl berth and may have ramifications in the Bowl Championship Series title chase.

“We have an opportunity, and so does USC have an opportunity,” Erickson said. “They’ve been on this stage a few times. We haven’t been on this stage in a while.”

Erickson raved about USC’s history at his weekly campus news conference. He seemed ready to hum a few bars of “Fight On.”

“Believe me, I’m not the chamber of commerce for USC, by any means,” Erickson said. “But you’ve also got to understand the tradition that they do have.”

Erickson could have been a part of that tradition. The Trojans courted Erickson in 2000, after he led Oregon State to a share of the Pac-10 title and a Fiesta Bowl berth. But the well-traveled Erickson turned them down, and USC turned to Pete Carroll.

The rest is college football history, as Carroll revitalized one of the sport’s fabled programs. In an interview last spring, Erickson said snubbing USC was among the few regrets he’s had in a long and mostly successful career.

“I still give it a lot of thought – ‘Why in the hell didn’t I?’ ” he said. “It was just a matter of staying at Oregon State. I felt that we had got things going on.”

Now the Sun Devils seem to have things going on. With two games to go in Erickson’s first season, they remain in contention for the BCS title game in New Orleans, though they’ll need some help to get there from the No. 6 position in the standings they currently hold.

“Dennis has done a fantastic job of rallying these guys and giving them football that they’ve been able to excel at,” said Carroll, who is 6-0 against Arizona State. “To put them at such a high level so soon, it’s remarkable.”

If ASU wins Thursday night, it will need only a victory over archrival Arizona to clinch a Rose Bowl berth, at worst.

A USC victory would give the Trojans a chance to extend their unprecedented streak of five straight Pac-10 titles. They would need a victory over UCLA coupled with an Oregon loss in one of its final two games.

The Trojans seem to be returning to form after a slew of injuries.

“I don’t think we’ve really been knocked off our mentality through all of the stuff,” Carroll said. “We’ve hung in there tough. Hopefully we can make something of this year.”

It won’t be easy. Although the Trojans have won seven straight against ASU, they have trailed at halftime in their last two trips to Tempe.

In 2005, with the temperature hovering near 100 degrees, ASU led the top-ranked Trojans 21-3 at intermission. The defending national champions rallied behind Reggie Bush and Lendale White for a 38-28 victory.

“I thought our guys were done,” Carroll said this week. “I thought we were cooked and we would not be able to respond. We came back and scored 35 points in the second half.”

On that day, ASU started fast but couldn’t finish. This year’s Sun Devils have done just the opposite.

They have trailed by double digits five times in the first quarter but have rallied for easy victories four times. The only time ASU came up short was on Nov. 3 in Eugene, when they fell behind 21-3 early in the second quarter on their way to a 35-23 loss to Oregon.

Erickson was asked what he would do if the Sun Devils took a lead in the opening quarter on Thanksgiving night.

“I know my stomach would be better,” he said. “We’ve got to come out and play better. I’ve been telling them that for eight weeks. Obviously, they haven’t listened.”

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