Running backs may hold key in Pac-10 clash

Updated: October 3, 2003, 3:34 PM ET

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State's Hakim Hill cast a glance toward fullback Mike Karney and said he's not worried about being able to run on 10th-ranked Southern California, vaunted defensive line and all.

"We know their defensive line is going to play hard," Hill said. "Their whole team is going to play hard, but I think our offensive linemen and No. 44 there, they'll be able to handle that well, open up some holes."

Hill, a sophomore who began this year as a fifth-stringer, has proven to be the Sun Devils' best tailback at finding a seam in the defense. He ran for 115 yards and caught six passes for another 92 yards in his first start, a 45-17 loss at Oregon State last week.

The Trojans (3-1, 0-1) have virtually the same situation at tailback -- a quartet of inexperienced players with potential but little proven experience.

They also are starting Lee Webb, a former linebacker, at fullback, an indication that Karney could be a factor in the game if it's decided by a running attack. The three-year starter combines an ability to throw devastating blocks and make big-time catches on the same series.

Karney said the Trojans' penchant for hard pursuit might help the Sun Devils (2-2, 0-1).

"Their defensive line is real active, and sometimes that can be to our benefit, because they're so active they can almost get themselves out of position where we can make a big play on them," Karney said.

Defensive tackle Shaun Cody, one of a quick, physical front four who have combined for 8{ of USC's 16 sacks, said the Trojans aren't taking the Sun Devils lightly.

"They get a lot of yards," he said.

Cody has been one of the team leaders trying to revive the Trojans after a 34-31, triple-overtime loss at California snapped their 11-game winning streak and dropped them out of national championship contention at least for the time being. Quarterback Matt Leinart is another.

"The loss probably brought us closer together," Leinart said. "Now we know we can get beat."

Especially troubling to the Trojans was the way Cal cut up their defense. Adimchinobe Echemandu ran for 147 yards -- the first time in 17 games USC had allowed a 100-yard rusher.

USC also hasn't had a 100-yard rusher this season, something unusual at a place known as Tailback U.

Coach Pete Carroll came in knowing he had to find a replacement for three senior tailbacks who shared starting assignments last year. Along with sophomore Hershel Dennis, he brought in prize recruits Reggie Bush, LenDale White and Chauncey Washington.

But all it's done has created a logjam when it comes to playing time.

Dennis leads the team with 230 yards, including a career-best 85 in the opener against Auburn.

"Hershel has done a nice job kind of getting us going and giving leadership to the group, the other young pups," coach Pete Carroll said. "We're trying to sort it out a little bit and find out who deserves more turns than the others."

The Sun Devils have played USC tough since joining the Pac-10 in 1978.

Until last year's 34-13 loss in Los Angeles, the series was tied at nine wins apiece. Arizona State was ahead 9-7 before the Trojans began their current, three-game winning streak.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index