The Coliseum Is Their New Stopping Ground
The wreckage of a fifth consecutive victim still smoldering, several USC Trojans paused on the littered landscape Saturday night to create one more rubber-necking scene.
They were all defensive players.
And they were all signing autographs.
Melvin Simmons scribbled on a child’s program. Bernard Riley wrote on a young man’s back.
Kenechi Udeze clutched a tiny pen in his giant, taped hand and shook his head.
“I haven’t done this very much,” he said, smiling, pausing. “Actually, I’ve never done this at all.”
If it wasn’t official before the Trojans’ 34-13 victory over Arizona State, it’s official now.
Welcome to Knock Them On Their Tails and Backs U.
If holding the nation’s eighth-ranked passing offense to fewer than 300 yards passing with two interceptions doesn’t convince you
If holding the Sun Devils to fewer points in one game than they scored in one quarter last week isn’t enough ...
If holding them to one yard on seven plays inside the Trojan 30-yard line in the second half won’t work ...
Then maybe this will:
At halftime, trailing, 20-10, the Sun Devil offensive linemen approached Coach Dirk Koetter with an unusual request.
Could they please use a no-huddle offense the rest of the game?
They felt it was the only way they could slow USC’s relentless defensive push and counter its adjustments.
Koetter knew it might be trouble. There are certain plays they had not practiced without a huddle.
He also figured he had no choice.
“Our players thought it would slow down their rush,” he said, shrugging.
One look at quarterback Andrew Walter staggering off the field with his shoulder pads around his ears would later indicate that it did not.
When it was used in the second half, the no-huddle became the all-muddle, leading to all sorts of foolishness.
This included Melvin Simmons’ game-clinching interception, assisted by a Sun Devil receiver who didn’t run the right play.
Yeah, the Trojans not only got into their wallets, they got into their heads.
“Nobody is going to beat us if we play our game,” crowed Marcell Allmond as he walked off the field.
That game is now clearly defense, which wins championships and saves seasons and changes everything.
Under Pete Carroll, USC has finally figured that out, and just in time, as the Trojans stalk into what could be their most important two-game stretch in 15 seasons.
They are ranked eighth, probably about to move up to at least seventh, their highest approval rating this late in the season since the quarterback was Rodney Peete.
They have a chance to sneak a Rose Bowl bid while snatching a Heisman Trophy for Carson Palmer, two long-odds deals, but possible nonetheless.
All that is stopping them?
Games against nothing-to-lose UCLA and loaded-for-BCS Notre Dame.
“Isn’t this fun?” asked Carroll.
If the Mike Williams-hobbled offense suffers more lapses like Saturday’s, the Trojans’ best hope can be found in a defensive game plan that was deciphered by Koetter only after the band began marching up the tunnel by his locker room.
“They changed coverages, they blitzed, they played straight man, they played zone ... " he said, his voice trailing off.
At that point, pounding drums were heard outside the interview room.
He closed his eyes, placed his fingers on his temples, and shook his head.
Um, coach? Those were your drums.
The USC band didn’t march through the tunnel until Walter was speaking, but he didn’t seem to mind the noise, perhaps because he had spent the previous three hours being drowned out.
“They obviously have good coaching,” he said of the USC defense. “They forced a lot of questionable throws.”
Leading to a couple of unquestionably impressive statistics.
Earlier this season at Oregon, Walter set a Pac-10 record by throwing for 536 yards.
Saturday, he threw for barely half that.
Earlier this season against Stanford, Walter threw five touchdown passes.
Saturday, he threw one, and only in the final minute of the first half on a busted coverage that left Shaun McDonald wide open.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had,” said Allmond, the former receiver who has found a new home at cornerback. “We do something new every play. Everybody gets involved. We keep coming and coming.”
Or, in the words of Carroll, “I like to think you’ve got to defend every player on our defense.”
For example, USC had six tackles for losses ... by six players ... playing four positions ... including cornerback.
All this on a day when the entire Coliseum crowd never chanted “de-fense, de-fense.”
Which, come to think of it, the Trojans should take as a compliment.
By now, apparently, it’s assumed.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com.