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Rebuilt Defense Feeds on Stanford

Injury-riddled unit covers its trouble spots, yielding less than 21 points a game.

November 06, 2005|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Second and nine. Lawrence Jackson trails the play -- a quick lateral -- when the ball pops loose. The USC defensive end recovers the fumble.

For the USC offense, Saturday night's 51-21 victory over Stanford at the Coliseum was a chance to show off. Tailbacks LenDale White and Reggie Bush broke loose for long runs. Matt Leinart threw touchdown passes to three receivers.

All in the first half.

For the Trojan defense, the game meant something else.

This is a unit that had to reload in the off-season, losing several All-Americans. Since then, it has suffered one injury after another.

But the defense has also shown improvement recently and ranked first in the Pacific 10 Conference last week.

So Stanford, near the bottom of the Pac-10 in offense, represented a tune-up before heading into three games against more-capable opponents.

Second and 15. Cornerback Justin Wyatt has man coverage, racing to keep with Stanford receiver Justin McCullum. The pass floats high and McCullum beats Wyatt to the ball for a 37-yard gain.

As Coach Pete Carroll put it last week: "Defensively, we are not there yet."

The Trojans do not have the interior line push they had with All-Americans Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson last season. But the line has been relatively stable, defensive end Frostee Rucker ranking among the conference leaders in sacks and Jackson having a strong game on Saturday.

After his fumble recovery in the first quarter, Jackson pressured Stanford quarterback Trent Edwards into throwing the ball away on two plays, then sacked him for a nine-yard loss.

Third and two. Linebacker Brian Cushing tips a Stanford pass into the air and fellow linebacker Thomas Williams makes the interception.

The trouble started when Dallas Sartz separated a shoulder.

Then Keith Rivers injured his hamstring and talented reserve Rey Maualuga was arrested and accused of punching a man at a party last week.

The Trojans suffered another blow in the first quarter against Stanford when middle linebacker Oscar Lua was hurt on kickoff coverage. The injury was reported as a possible knee sprain.

For one night, at least, a lineup of Cushing, Williams, Collin Ashton and Ryan Powdrell filled in nicely.

Maualuga played in the second half.

First and 10. Darnell Bing charges from his safety spot to help Rucker drop Stanford running back J.R. Lemon for a one-yard loss.

The secondary started fall as the biggest question mark, but could turn out to be a pleasant surprise.

Safeties Bing and Scott Ware form the core. Wyatt has mixed solid play with occasional lapses while, at the other corner, new starter Josh Pinkard has come on strong.

Pinkard has played well wherever the Trojans have put him this season, be it on special teams or nickel defense. The converted safety has looked at home in his new spot.

"Run support and his tackling in general," Carroll said. "He is a factor when the ball comes his way, both run and pass."

Second and six. Rucker drops into coverage on a zone blitz and intercepts a deflected pass. He fumbles and Pinkard scoops up the ball, returning it 21 yards to the Stanford four-yard line.

For all the setbacks and stumbles, the defense has limited opponents to a conference-best average of 339 yards and -- more important to Carroll, who is willing to give up yards -- less than 21 points a game.

But as the Trojans make a run at an unprecedented third-straight national championship, things won't be as easy as they were against Stanford.

The next opponent, California, ranked among the top 10 nationally in rushing and scoring last week. Fresno State was averaging 41.4 points a game, sixth best in the country. UCLA stood one spot higher at 42.6.

Carroll figures his defense has a ways to go, but said, "we have a chance to get better."

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