October 26, 2008

Long drive a bright spot

TUCSON, Ariz. - It really hasn't been their style.

When the Trojans have scored most of their touchdowns this season, they struck quick.

USC head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian have had fun using quarterback Mark Sanchez's arm for plenty of big plays.

But during the first half Saturday at Arizona Stadium, it just wasn't there.

USC had chances down the field. Sanchez overthrew receivers. When he was on the money, the receivers dropped the ball.

"We kept kind of shooting ourselves in the foot tonight," Sarkisian said. "We have to just execute better."

So, the Trojans changed things up.

With just under 13 minutes on the clock and the score tied 3-3, USC took over at its own 20.

The Trojans began to pick up yards in small chunks. They rushed the ball with Stafon Johnson and completed intermediate passes.

Sanchez found Damian Williams on third down twice during the lengthy drive. Johnson carried the ball seven times for 35 yards on the drive.

"The long drive we sustained really helped us out in the long run," Sanchez said. "When we're not getting big plays and our offense is sputtering a little bit, the running game picked up in the nick of time. We converted on third down and we ended up getting out of here with the win."

Almost eight minutes after the drive began, Johnson busted through the left side of the offensive line for a two-yard touchdown. The Trojans would go on to win 17-10.

The drive, USC's longest of the season, lasted 17 plays and took almost eight minutes off the clock.

"That was a huge drive," guard Jeff Byers said. "It's a very valuable asset to have and we need to keep working on it. To have a 17-play drive, it means you're winning in third down.

"That's huge."

In addition to the seven points the drive eventually put on the board, Johnson said he noticed the drive deflated the Arizona crowd.

"We knew had to hurry up and hit them in the mouth. There was a great crowd here because of homecoming. They were fired up," he said. "We knew we had to hit them and hit them fast. If we didn't do it right then and there, it'd be hard for us to do it later on.

"That hurt them a little bit. I think it hurt them the most out of the whole game. It was left up for us to pound the ball and keep the defense off the field for a little bit."

The lengthy, plodding drive helped temporarily mask the offense's inability to connect on the big play.

On the Trojans' first possession, a great punt return gave USC the ball at the Arizona 25. Sanchez dropped back and had Patrick Turner open on a skinny post for an easy touchdown. Sanchez, though, badly overthrew his receiver.

"We had a shot on the first play of the game, and I missed it," Sanchez said. "There's no excuse for that. I need to be more accurate, and he ran a great route."

Carroll said the lack of big plays Saturday was disappointing.

"We missed some stuff. We had some guys wide open early on and we couldn't make it happen," Carroll said. "We just weren't as sharp. With throwing and catching, I wish we could've been better tonight, and I think we missed our opportunities because of it.

"We just didn't hit them tonight."

Still, for that one drive, the Trojans proved they're more than just a high risk, high reward offense. They're willing to grind one out now and again.

"That was a stellar drive," Carroll said. "There was some great running and some great third-down wins. It was obviously critical in the game as you look back. That drive was huge."

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