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October 11, 2008Unlike it has for much of the season, the USC offense forced the Trojan defense to make the big play.
Sure, the Trojan offense managed to put some points on the board early, but for most of Saturday afternoon against Arizona State, the Trojan offense looked sluggish and ineffective.
Despite the offensive inadequacies, the Trojan defense played an incredible game, holding Arizona State scoreless in No. 8 USC's 28-0 win.
"We just needed the offense to put a couple of points up there," linebacker Rey Maualuga said. "The defense just went out and did its job."
The job was tougher at times than others, like when the USC offense put the shutout in peril with sloppy play.
Still, the defense imposed its will and kept the Sun Devils (2-4, 1-2 Pac-10) off the board.
"They weren't going to let it happen," USC head coach Pete Carroll said. "It didn't matter what we were doing or what we were calling, they were getting after them. The guys just were making plays."
In the third quarter, the Trojans (4-1, 2-1) turned the ball over four different times, setting Arizona State with a very short field. Considering the Sun Devils have one of the best field goal kickers in the country in Thomas Weber, it seemed almost certain they'd get on the board somehow.
Instead of relenting and letting Arizona State grab any momentum, the Trojan defense dug in and forced Arizona State back. And when the Sun Devils got in position to score with their kicker, defensive tackle Fili Moala wouldn't let it happen.
"I don't know if I've been around an offensive performance like that in my career," Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson said. "Give credit to USC, but whenever we get the football like we did in the third quarter as many times as we did, you've got to score points - and we didn't.
"I wish I knew why."
Moala blocked two Weber field goals in the third quarter, tying an NCAA record for blocked kicks in a quarter, and for the fifth-straight game, the Trojan defense shutout its opponent in the third quarter.
"Our coaches let us know that they were kind of vulnerable up front and had a couple of soft spots," Moala said. "We just took advantage of that. We got into our gaps and got some penetration, and I was fortunate enough to get my hands up and block those two."
The USC offense needed the defense's help, as the Trojans tried to survive five turnovers.
USC quarterback Mark Sanchez had his worst game of the year, completing just half of his 26 attempts for 179 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
"It was clear. Mark knew it. He was struggling," Carroll said. "It was a hard day for him."
Making things more troublesome, the USC receivers, which had been so solid, played their worst game, dropping a handful of very catchable balls.
Wind gusts affected both teams' ability to move the ball through the air, Carroll said.
But the wind, though, was not much of a factor as USC took control of the game early, moving the ball beautifully down the field through the air.
Sanchez found Johnson and Damian Williams for big gains, eventually taking the ball in himself for a 1-yard score.
Then in the second quarter, Sanchez led the Trojans on an 80-yard drive that ended with Williams' four-yard touchdown catch.
Kevin Thomas followed up the offense's score with one of his own, stepping in front of a Rudy Carpenter pass, taking it 48 yards for the third USC touchdown.
After the woeful third quarter, USC's finally got back on the board thanks to some big plays from Joe McKnight and a 2-yard scoring run from Stafon Johnson.
McKnight led the Trojans with 143 yards on 11 carries.
"He was really a spark for us when we weren't doing much else on offense," Carroll said.
McKnight, who has struggled some over the past two games, said he came into the week focused.
"I just wanted to get all the bad things out of mind and put all the good things in," he said. "Our offensive line turned it on in the fourth quarter. We had to put the game away. In the huddle, we said we were going to just march right down the field and put in the end zone."
After USC went up 28-0, the focus shifted to keeping Arizona State off the board, something the Trojans were able to do thanks to freshman T.J. Bryant's last-second interception.
"The shutout was important," safety Kevin Ellison said. "We want to keep people off the board and play the best defense possible."
The defensive effort helped bail out the offense, Williams said.
"If those guys put together any scoring drives the whole game, that game's a lot different," he said. "It'd have been a lot closer, and we might not have won.
"We're happy to have come out of this the way we did because it could've been a lot worse."