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Trojans get a flag waiver

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

USC hamstrings itself with 105 yards in penalties but rides defense to a 17-3 victory over CalSanchez has two scoring passes in win that may lift team's BCS stock

November 09, 2008|Gary Klein | Klein is a Times staff writer.

It wasn't very artistic.

Unless you appreciate suffocating but sometimes-out-of-control defense.

It wasn't very exciting.

Unless overcoming another double-digit night of penalties is your thing.

Despite its penchant for making things tougher than they probably need to be, seventh-ranked USC stayed in the mix for the Bowl Championship Series title game with a hard-fought 17-3 victory over No. 21 California on Saturday before 88,523 at the Coliseum.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez passed for two touchdowns, including one that clinched the victory in the fourth quarter, as USC improved to 8-1 overall and 6-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference.

USC, which fell two spots to No. 7 in the BCS standings after last week's 56-0 rout of winless Washington, is expected to get a bump today after No. 3 Penn State lost to Iowa.

Once again, USC can thank its top-ranked defense, a nearly impenetrable force that punished Golden Bears ballcarriers and receivers.

"We want to make everybody feel us, make everybody understand what we're about and what this defense is about," said junior safety Taylor Mays, who delivered several bone-crunching hits to break up pass plays.

USC, which leads the nation in scoring defense, fell short of recording its fourth shutout, but the Trojans stuffed Cal's high-powered rushing game, limiting it to 27 yards. USC also had 10 tackles for losses, including four sacks, and one interception.

Actually, the Trojans picked off three passes but two were nullified by penalties on the same drive. Those were only two of 10 infractions (for 105 yards) incurred by the Trojans, who hit double figures for the fifth time in six games.

Coach Pete Carroll and his players repeated the same refrain regarding a problem that contributed to a Sept. 25 loss at Oregon State but has not derailed the Trojans since.

"It hasn't cost us games, but it could," said Carroll, who improved his record to 25-0 in November games.

Linebacker Brian Cushing attributed USC's penalty problems to "a little bit of everything.

"Any time you get that many guys playing aggressively, things can happen," said Cushing, who had nine tackles but nullified an interception with a late hit on Cal quarterback Nate Longshore. "We'll have to cut that down. It could come back to haunt us."

Cal also hurt itself with eight penalties for 50 yards.

"It killed us in the red zone and one time kept us out of field-goal range," said Bears Coach Jeff Tedford, whose team fell to 6-3 overall and 4-2 in conference play.

USC emerged unscathed with just enough offense on a night when it converted only four of 11 third downs.

The Trojans built a 10-3 halftime lead on David Buehler's 27-yard field goal and a 19-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to receiver Patrick Turner. The scoring pass came after Cal had tied the score with a field goal, a drive that would have ended had two interceptions not been wiped out by penalties.

Cal quarterback Kevin Riley, who suffered a concussion last week against Oregon, replaced starter Nate Longshore to start the second half and seemed to give the Bears a spark. But USC repulsed two third-quarter threats with big plays from its secondary.

On Cal's first possession of the second half, a pass interference penalty against safety Will Harris kept a drive alive. But Harris tipped a pass by Riley two plays later and cornerback Josh Pinkard intercepted to end the threat.

"The third time's the charm, right?" Pinkard said. "Luckily, we didn't have any penalties."

In fact, a penalty against Cal, for an illegal receiver downfield, erased a 27-yard touchdown pass from Riley to running back Shane Vereen five plays before Pinkard's interception.

The USC offense failed to capitalize and Cal got the ball back at its 36 with 7:09 left in the third quarter.

But the drive went nowhere, Kevin Thomas sacking Riley on first down, linebacker Kaluka Maiava and Mays breaking up a pass on second down and Mays hammering receiver Nyan Boateng to break up a reception on third down.

USC finally put the game away with a 73-yard drive that started midway through the fourth quarter and lasted 13 plays, culminating with Sanchez's six-yard touchdown pass to receiver Ronald Johnson with 2:59 left.

"We felt a real sense of urgency as an offense," said Sanchez, who completed 18 of 29 passes for 238 yards without an interception against a Cal defense that was tied for the national lead with 17. "We realized how well the defense was playing and we had to show them how much we appreciated it."

The Trojans finished with 411 yards, 173 rushing.

USC now turns its attention to next week's game against Stanford, which upset the Trojans last year at the Coliseum.

"We know what happened last year, having them coming into our house and beating us," Mays said. "We're looking forward to this game."

--

gary.klein@latimes.com

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