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Runs, hits and errors for USC

McKnight rushes for 143 yards and defense pitches a shutout, but five turnovers, four by Sanchez, mar No. 8 Trojans' 28-0 win over Arizona State.

October 12, 2008|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

The score told one story, but what actually happened on the field was another.

Maybe that's why most of the smiles and exclamations that usually accompany a victory were absent after eighth-ranked USC defeated Arizona State, 28-0, Saturday at the Coliseum.

"They ain't gonna all be pretty," Coach Pete Carroll said.

At least it wasn't Oregon State ugly.

USC's mistakes in its Pacific 10 Conference opener at Corvallis, Ore., on Sept. 25 resulted in a loss that knocked the Trojans off their perch atop the polls and instantly made any shot at the Bowl Championship Series title game difficult.

In retrospect, USC reaped an unexpected benefit in defeat: Network television executives, perhaps sensing the Trojans had lost their national appeal -- and perhaps their shot at a national championship -- scheduled Saturday's game for midday and broadcast it only to a regional audience.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 14, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
College football: A caption in Sunday's Sports section misidentified the USC player shown upending Arizona State kick returner Kyle Williams. The hit was made by Trojans punter Greg Woidneck, not linebacker Christian Tupou.

That means college football fans in Southeastern and Big 12 conference country, and coaches and voters in the Harris Interactive Poll, will see the score and might assume it was a dominating overall effort by the Trojans.

What they may have missed:

Quarterback Mark Sanchez committing four turnovers -- a fumble and three interceptions -- in the third quarter.

Receivers dropping passes.

Ten penalties, none of which ultimately hurt the Trojans thanks only to the Sun Devils' ineptitude on offense.

While Joe McKnight provided most of the highlights on offense by rushing for a career-best 143 yards, it was the defense and special teams that helped the Trojans improve to 4-1 overall and 2-1 in conference play with their first shutout since last season's 38-0 victory at Notre Dame.

"When you give up zero points, it's a good job however you look at it," safety Kevin Ellison said.

True. But USC and the Pac-10 face a national perception problem, thanks mainly to the Mountain West Conference. The Trojans are in a beauty contest of sorts with pollsters and computers that determine the BCS standings.

"We're satisfied with the win, but we know as a team that we could have played 10 times better, a hundred times better," said senior defensive tackle Fili Moala, who recovered a fumble and blocked two field-goal attempts.

USC, coming off a victory over previously ranked Oregon, initially showed no ill effects from its early-morning wake-up call for the 12:30 p.m. kickoff. The Trojans scored on their first possession on Sanchez's one-yard sneak.

But like children who eat their Halloween candy for breakfast, the sugar rush was followed by a comedown.

The offense sputtered through most of the first half until Sanchez connected with receiver Damian Williams for a short touchdown with 6 minutes 15 seconds left in the second quarter. Cornerback Kevin Thomas' 46-yard interception return for a touchdown on the ensuing Arizona State possession gave the Trojans a 21-0 halftime lead.

Then came the first 15 minutes of the second half.

The majority of the 84,956 in attendance mostly sat in stunned silence as Sanchez struggled.

The junior, who suffered a bone bruise in his left knee against Oregon and missed practice time last week, fumbled after he was sacked on the first possession of the third quarter, then had passes picked off on each of the next three.

"That third quarter seemed like a year," defensive end Kyle Moore said.

It seemed longer to Carroll.

"It took forever," he said. "I kept wanting for something to happen so the fans could clap."

So did offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

"I don't know if it was one of those days or what, but everything that could have gone wrong went wrong." Sarkisian said. "Guys were open; we dropped the ball. Guys were open; we missed the throw. Guys were open; we missed a block and got sacked.

"If it wasn't one guy, it was another."

Sanchez, who completed 13 of 26 passes for 179 yards, put much of the blame on himself. He acknowledged mistakes by others but said, "Half the time it was me throwing bad balls."

Not that Arizona State could do anything to capitalize.

The Sun Devils converted only three of 18 third downs, managed only 229 yards and had field-goal attempts blocked on consecutive possessions.

"I don't know if I've been around an offensive performance like that in my career," said Arizona State Coach Dennis Erickson, whose team fell to 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the Pac-10. "Give credit to USC. But whenever we get the football like we did in the third quarter, as many times as we did, you've got to score points and we didn't.

"I wish I knew why."

USC's defense had much to do with it.

The Trojans registered three sacks of quarterback Rudy Carpenter, whose availability was in doubt up until game day because of an ankle sprain suffered last week against California. They also stuffed the Sun Devils' struggling rushing attack, holding it to 75 yards, 10 below its Pac-10-worst average.

Still, the Trojans will prepare for next week's game at struggling Washington State knowing they can play better than they did Saturday.

"A lot of us have the feeling that it wasn't a dominating performance due to the fact that it wasn't all the momentum our way the whole game," defensive end Clay Matthews said. "But overall I think we played very well."

--

gary.klein@latimes.com

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