Defense remains in style

November 30, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Baxter is a Times staff writer.

Defense may win games, but under the Bowl Championship Series format it apparently doesn't win championships.

Or even qualify you to play for one.

That's probably as good an explanation as any for why fifth-ranked USC, which ran its record to 10-1 by thoroughly humiliating Notre Dame, 38-3, at the Coliseum on Saturday, appears headed back to the Rose Bowl while three other one-loss teams remain in the mix for the BCS title game.

"I don't think we play for [the polls]," linebacker Brian Cushing said. "We play to win. We're not concerned about pretty wins or anything like that."

Pretty wins usually mean lots and lots of points -- which isn't USC's style.

Notre Dame is the sixth opponent USC has held to less than a touchdown this season -- and three of those teams didn't score at all. That gives the Trojans more shutouts than the four teams ahead of them in the BCS standings -- Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida -- have combined.

"We only control what we can control," said linebacker Rey Maualuga, repeating the Trojans' well-worn company line. "That's winning. A 'W' for us is a 'W.' And we're going to take it."

Some Ws are apparently worth more than others, though. The three one-loss teams ranked ahead of USC have scored 42 or more points at least eight times this fall. USC is averaging 38 points a game.

And when it comes to winning style points, every point on the scoreboard counts.

"The BCS is a whole other thing," linebacker Kaluka Maiava said with a shrug. "Our job is to play defense. If they don't score, they don't win."

Notre Dame struggled simply to get a first down, something it didn't accomplish until the final play of the third quarter. And it didn't reach the USC side of the field until there were only 14 minutes left.

Brandon Walker's 41-yard field goal gave Notre Dame its first points against the Trojans in two years.

The Fighting Irish finished with only 91 yards of total offense -- or 11 more than USC gave them in penalties. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who was sacked four times and hurried on most of his 22 passes, managed only 41 yards through the air.

"They get after you. And they're nasty," said USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who plays against the Trojans' defense in practice.

"They play hard. They don't want to give up an inch, that's obvious."

And they seem to be getting better.

"As the season has gotten older, our defense has gotten stronger," tackle Fili Moala said. "We totally believe if we prepare and we come out here and do what we're supposed to do, no one can score on us. And that's not being cocky. That's just being confident in ourselves."

So how would USC's defense stand up against the point-a-minute teams ranked ahead of the Trojans in the BCS standings?

Maualuga suggests there may be one way to find out.

"NCAA, the [video] game. We can only do that," he said. "Play that and see who comes up on top."

Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis, for one, doesn't need any more convincing.

"Their defense whipped us pretty good tonight," he said. "USC is the team that you have to look at when you look at playing for championships."


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