Deny ability makes USC win plausible
Notre Dame exposed them.
Oregon State took it another step further.
And then, of course, Oregon humiliated them.
So USC’s defensive players came to the desert seeking redemption.
They got a measure of it on Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium, the defense leading 12th-ranked USC to a 14-9 victory over Arizona State before a crowd of 55,582.
Senior safety Will Harris returned one of his two interceptions for a touchdown and receiver Damian Williams turned a short pass into a spectacular 75-yard scoring play as the Trojans bounced back from last week’s blowout loss at Oregon.
A few hours after Oregon fell at Stanford, the Trojans improved to 7-2 overall and 4-2 in the Pacific 10 Conference.
With three home games to finish the season, the Trojans could still be in the mix for an eighth consecutive conference title.
“It ain’t over,” Harris said.
It’s not over because the Trojans did what they have always done after suffering regular-season losses under Coach Pete Carroll: They bounced back with a victory.
It was far from artistic, USC committing nine penalties for nearly 100 yards, but the Trojans improved Carroll’s record in November games to 28-0.
The defense forced four turnovers, getting its groove back on a balmy night when the offense continued to struggle.
“We didn’t make much of them,” Carroll said of the turnovers. “But it felt so much more like you like to feel.”
Defensive players were in search of a better feeling after enduring an agonizingly long week of answering questions from the media and fans.
The Trojans had given up 613 yards, including 391 yards rushing, in their nightmare Halloween defeat at Oregon.
Carroll had blamed himself for making the scheme too complicated, but the players had tackled poorly.
“All week we talked about coming back and being the D we were at the beginning of the year,” middle linebacker Chris Galippo said.
According to Carroll and his players, that meant going back to the basics.
“We hoped that by doing that our guys would get out of the funk we’ve been in these last couple weeks,” Carroll said. “We forced them to execute base defense.”
The strategy paid off, the Trojans forcing a fumble in the first quarter, Galippo intercepting a pass by Sun Devils quarterback Danny Sullivan early in the second quarter, and Harris dashing 55 yards with an interception late in the period to give the Trojans a 7-3 halftime lead.
“That was the huge play of the game,” Carroll said.
Williams might have trumped Harris on the second play of the third quarter.
Williams, who has been battling sore hamstring and gluteus muscles, caught a short pass near the right sideline, then cut back against the grain, slipped a tackle and took advantage of some blocks as he raced down the left sideline in front of the USC bench.
After diving for the pylon, Williams was ruled down before the ball crossed the goal line. But replay officials ruled that it was a touchdown and the Trojans led, 14-3.
“I don’t know if we’ve seen a better play,” Carroll said.
The Trojans saw a new Arizona State quarterback in the second half when Coach Dennis Erickson replaced Sullivan with freshman Brock Osweiler.
Osweiler’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Chris McGaha with 36 seconds left in the third quarter pulled the Sun Devils to within 14-9. USC’s Josh Pinkard blocked the extra-point attempt to keep the lead at five points.
USC’s defense made that stand up as Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley continued to struggle and the offense stifled drives with penalties.
“Things weren’t clicking tonight; I don’t know what it was,” said Barkley, who completed only seven of 22 passes for 112 yards.
Arizona State was in position to take the lead after safety Clint Floyd intercepted a pass on a wild play that featured seven tips and touches.
But USC stopped the Sun Devils on three successive possessions.
Arizona State’s final drive started at its 22-yard line with 1 minute 56 seconds remaining.
It ended with Osweiler lofting a Hail Mary pass 45 yards into the end zone, where Harris and safety Taylor Mays leaped and then wrestled for possession of the ball.
“Offensively we moved it, but we can’t have turnovers,” said Erickson, whose team fell to 4-5 and 2-4 in the Pac-10.
Mays said the Trojans were on the right track as they headed to the home stretch of their schedule.
“It was important to get back to that feeling of playing with swagger and confidence,” he said.
After playing six of its nine games on the road, USC now returns to the Coliseum for its last three games. The Trojans play Stanford, UCLA and Arizona to close out a season that appears significantly brighter one week removed from the Oregon debacle.
“We paid the price along the way,” Carroll said of the rigors of the road. “Now we have to cash in like we know how.”