TEMPE, Ariz. – The number is 23, one-fifth of the Arizona State Sun Devils’ roster.
For those players, including starting running back Demario Richard, this week’s visit to Los Angeles to play USC marks a homecoming of sorts. It’s their chance play before family and friends, many of whom they might not have seen in months.
“It’s a business trip, but it’s (going to be) exciting to see my family and friends from high school. A lot of my family members I don’t get to see like that, so I’m happy,” said Richard, who leads the team in rushing and ranks third in the Pac-12 with 348 yards.
Richard and senior receiver Tim White are among the more notable offensive players, while senior linebacker Salamo Fiso plus linemen Viliami Latu and JoJo Wicker lead the ASU defensive contingent who grew up in Southern California.
Even those players not tied to the L.A. area recognize the importance of the trip.
“That’s a special situation for them to go back home and play USC,” running back Kalen Ballage said. “Some of these guys, they grow up and some of these guys have dreamed of playing at USC. Maybe it didn’t work out that or maybe their dreams changed later on in their careers or whatever … (but) they hold that game very near and dear to their hearts, and I hold it near to my heart just because it’s my teammates.”
Those Southern California Sun Devils help make up a 4-0 football team that will invade the Coliseum late Saturday afternoon.
ASU has not made it easy on itself in the process of joining the 26 other undefeated programs in the FBS. In each of the Sun Devils’ last three victories, they trailed in the second half with the previous two wins needing fourth-quarter comebacks.
“I think it is good to have that experience,” offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said Wednesday. “Some of our things that have happened early in the games have been self-inflicted. It’s things that we can correct, and we’re working to do that.”
In other words, a better start is preferred.
“It’s crazy because I feel like we kind of thrive from behind. It’s weird,” Ballage said. “It’s not always necessarily a good thing because sometimes you can’t always pull it out and come back like we have in the past two weeks. I think it’s just important to establish ourselves earlier on in the game so that we don’t always have to play comeback.”
For USC, meanwhile, the season has not met expectations, at least thus far. The Trojans have lost three of four, and they are coming off consecutive road defeats to Pac-12 opponents Stanford and Utah.
Despite the Trojans’ 1-3 record, the Sun Devils refuse to overlook the matchup.
“They’re always talented. It’s USC,” Ballage said. “They always get a lot of big recruits and people that can just flat-out play football.”
“They come to play every week,” he said. “They’re athletic on defense, very athletic, very talented on defense, very disciplined on defense. It’s USC. It’s what you expect from them. We’re just ready to play.”
— There were a few anxious moments for ASU fans last Saturday when Ballage limped off the field in the first quarter against Cal. Fortunately for everyone, he returned in the second half.
“I wanted to go back in probably two, three plays after it happened, but I had to get cleared by the doctor,” said Ballage, who twice gained fourth-quarter first downs when running the ball out of the Sparky formation. “The whole time, I was inside (the locker room) I was basically begging for them to let me go out back on the field. I told them I was fine and everything. Just being able to be out there with my teammates is the most important part to me.”
— Admittedly, Richard is his own worst critic. Against Cal, he rushed for 66 yards, which marked a season-low. Richard expects better.
“A lot of misreads,” he said. “When you go back and look at the film, you be like, ‘ah man, I should’ve had that one or man, maybe if I would’ve took this step.’ On paper, it was a lot of MEs (mental errors), but in my mind, I’m hard on myself. I made a lot of MEs and stuff like that. It is what it is. I take it week-by-week. It’s a new week. I’m positive coming in. There’s nothing you can do about last week. I’m fine. We’re good.”
— Last Saturday’s conference opener saw big contributions from a pair of offensive performers who are not always spotlighted. Redshirt sophomore receiver Jalen Harvey caught five passes for 83 yards, both career-highs while sophomore tight end Jay Jay Wilson had one catch for 30 yards in his first action following a three-game suspension.
“He plays with that hard edge. I like that,” Lindsey said of Harvey. “He’s a competitor. He competes for the ball. He’s done a really nice job so far. Some weeks he’s caught more balls than others but you see the same Jalen no matter if he’s catching balls or not, and that’s what you like to see.”
Lindsey added about Wilson, “Jay Jay has worked hard to get to where he is now and continue to improve himself. Jay Jay is a very talented kid. He’s a young guy, so we’re looking forward to the future with him, for sure.”