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Defense Rises to Occasion : Trojans: Washington State's vaunted defenders take a back seat as USC makes the big plays.


PULLMAN, Wash. — USC's defense didn't quite know how to express itself this week.

The Trojans were up against the nation's No. 2 defense, Washington State's vaunted "Palouse Posse." USC needed a rallying cry but, frankly, didn't have one.

"Honest, We Really Don't Stink," wasn't going to cut it.

"We couldn't come out and say, 'What about SC?' " linebacker Jeff Kopp said. "What are you going to say? That we've got a good defense? We were the only ones who knew that."

Now the rest of the Pacific 10 Conference knows.

Defense, as expected, ruled the day in USC's 23-10 victory over Washington State on Saturday.

Surprise. It was the Trojan defense.

The same defense that entered play ranked eighth overall in a 10-team conference; ninth against the run, fifth against the pass.

"On paper, we don't look like a very good defense," Kopp said.

Most didn't give the Trojan defenders a snowball's chance in Pullman. But, suddenly, the unit was struck with inspiration when the team got pelted in pregame warm-ups by the slush-throwing goofballs in Martin Stadium.

"Each snowball got us more fired up," defensive lineman Matt Keneley said.

The Trojans held the Cougars to 10 points and 283 total yards. USC, meanwhile, racked up 395 yards against what was hailed to be the best defense this side of Memphis (the University of, the nation's top-ranked unit).

The Cougars led the nation in two important categories, allowing opponents an average of only 10.4 points and 58 rushing yards per game.

The Trojans allowed the Cougars 10 points and 50 net rushing yards.

"I told our defense all week, we're going to have to hold them to 14 points to win the game," USC defensive coordinator Don Lindsey said.

USC's defense appears to have finally recovered from the shell-shock suffered in a Sept. 9 defeat to Penn State in which the Trojans, on national television, surrendered 534 total yards in a 38-14 loss that wasn't as close as the score indicated.

"A lot of people saw us against Penn State and said, 'This is a bad team,' " USC Coach John Robinson said. "But we're a pretty good team."

USC doesn't have a star to lean on, no Willie McGinest to call its own anymore. The Trojans are starting a sophomore and a freshman on the defensive front and can't use the gambling, swarm tactics Washington State employs.

"We've got to play half-court," Lindsey said, using a basketball analogy.

Using the more tactical approach, the Trojans need 11 able men to rally around the ball.

Saturday, USC was led by Kopp, the senior linebacker, who finished with eight tackles and two sacks. Kopp was exploited on Washington State's only score, a 33-yard scoring pass to tight end Eric Moore, but it did not stop the linebacker from dominating the game's latter moments.

Kopp ended any Cougar comeback thoughts late in the game when he sacked quarterback Chad Davis for a six-yard loss on second down and snuffed out the drive with another tackle on Davis on fourth and 12.

"We don't have a big-play guy," Kopp said afterward. "We've got to have a lot of guys contributing."

Other contributors:

--Brian Williams. The senior linebacker set the tone for the second half when he tackled tailback Derek Sparks for a four-yard loss on third and one to stop the Cougars' opening drive.

--Donn Cunnigan. The senior linebacker made the game's first key play when he intercepted backup quarterback Derek Chapman's pass and returned it eight yards to the Cougar 30, setting up the Trojans' first touchdown.

Cunnigan also delivered the game's keynote address in the second quarter when he leveled and dislodged the ball from receiver Kearney Adams, who was crossing the middle.

--Brian Kelly. The freshman cornerback intercepted a Davis pass with 1:45 left in the third quarter.

The Trojan defense is back on track and streaking toward a possible rematch with Penn State.

"The minute after that game, we realized--no, we knew--there was a 100% chance they'd be in the Rose Bowl," Keneley said of the Nittany Lions. "We knew if we could continue to build, and improve, we'd have another chance to show them.

"There would be nothing better than to face the No. 1 team in the nation, and beat them, after what they did to us. That's been an underlying goal for us."

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