USC defense takes a bite out of Washington, 40-17

This time the dark clouds were real, not symbolic.

Lane Kiffin has talked all season about the shadow hanging over USC’s program because of NCAA sanctions and how the Trojans were on the verge of breaking through to a bright future.

On Saturday, under a sky that threatened but never dumped rain, the No. 18 Trojans moved another step closer.

With a dominating defensive performance and big plays from special teams, USC routed Washington, 40-17, at the Coliseum.


“Just keep trying to move those clouds away,” Kiffin said. “We’ll just keep trying to move them out of the sky and get some sun around here.”

USC is heating up at the right time.

The Trojans, who improved to 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the Pac-12 Conference, head to Autzen Stadium next week to play sixth-ranked Oregon, a 53-30 winner over third-ranked Stanford on Saturday.

“It gives us a big boost,” junior defensive end Nick Perry said of the Trojans’ performance. “We’re going to be ready to go.”

That might not be enough against the Ducks.

The last time the Trojans traveled to Eugene, were all but massacred on Halloween Night in 2009, 47-20.

USC players are confident it will be different this time, mainly because the defense appears to be much improved.

The Trojans recorded a season-high seven sacks against Washington. They also got a game-turning play from Kyle Negrete on a fake punt and a kickoff return for a touchdown by Marqise Lee.

That helped complement an offensive performance that included Curtis McNeal’s career-best 148 rushing yards, but only one touchdown pass by Matt Barkley and two receptions by Robert Woods.

No wonder Barkley is looking forward to the challenge of playing at Oregon.

“I think Oregon is very good this year,” said Barkley, who completed 18 of 28 passes for 174 yards, “But I think they were better when we played them in the past.”

Is this USC team better?

Kiffin pointed to statistics: USC gave up 537 yards, 225 rushing, in a 32-31 loss to Washington last season. On Saturday, the Trojans gave up 244 yards, only 46 rushing.

“Everybody has improved — we’re a year better,” said Perry, who had 2 1/2 sacks. “That’s what good teams do, they get better, and we’re showing that.”

Say this for the Trojans: They did not allow Washington to take the game into the final minute.

That’s what happened in each of the two seasons when Erik Folk beat them with last-second field goals.

Folk kicked a second-quarter field goal Saturday, but the Huskies mustered only one third-quarter touchdown before scoring against Trojans reserves in the final minute.

“Football is a pretty simple game,” Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian said. “You’ve got to block, tackle and run, and we didn’t do that very well.”

Washington (6-4, 4-3) trailed, 7-3, in the second quarter when Negrete made what turned out to be the game’s momentum-shifting play.

On fourth down at USC’s 45-yard line, he took the long snap and bolted 35 yards for a first down, electrifying the Trojans’ sideline and a crowd of 64,756.

Four plays later, Marc Tyler scored on a short touchdown run, starting a string of 23 unanswered points.

Washington botched a snap in the shotgun formation, the ball going over quarterback Keith Price’s head into the end zone. Price picked up the ball but was sacked by Devon Kennard for a safety.

Barkley then connected with Lee for a nine-yard touchdown that gave the Trojans a 23-3 halftime lead.

Lee returned the second-half kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown before the Huskies finally answered with Chris Polk’s short touchdown run.

But USC put the game away just over a minute later when McNeal broke off left tackle and scored on a 79-yard run.

So now, it’s on to Oregon.

Kiffin would not look ahead to that game, but it’s clear he is feeling good about his team.

“We’re getting closer,” he said, “to where we wanted to be.”