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Not beyond compare

USC's defense is impressive, but 2004 might have been Carroll's best, and this year's squad has benefited from opponents' quarterback woes.

October 25, 2008|Gary Klein | Klein is a Times staff writer.

TUCSON — Consider the evidence:

Two consecutive shutouts.

More than 10 quarters since an opponent registered so much as a field goal.

Through six games, USC has given up the fewest points and the second-fewest yards per game in major college football.

So this is the best defense of the Pete Carroll era, right?

Hold on.

The Trojans' defense has impressed -- "We've never had a better first half than this," Carroll said -- but they've got a ways to go before they can be compared with the 2004 unit that helped USC to an unbeaten season and national championship.

"That defense was the best at making things happen, adjusting and adapting, making plays and turnovers, all that stuff," USC's coach said.

This season's defense can continue building its resume tonight against Arizona.

The Wildcats, averaging 40 points a game, are led by Willie Tuitama, the most experienced and perhaps fittest quarterback the Trojans will face.

"We look pretty good, but we've got to keep it up to be just as good as the 2004 team," said senior defensive end Clay Matthews, a walk-on freshman linebacker in 2004.

Excluding Oregon State, USC has mostly dominated opponents.

Credit a defense that, according to Carroll, features "the best back seven we've had across the board."

Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Kaluka Maiava at linebacker, Josh Pinkard, Cary Harris and Kevin Thomas at cornerback and Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays at safety are the stalwarts of a unit that is giving up only 7.8 points and 220 yards a game.

However, some of the Trojans' success is attributable to opponents' disarray at quarterback.

Virginia's Peter Lalich came back from a suspension to start against USC but was eventually removed from the team. Ohio State could not decide between senior Todd Boeckman and freshman Terrelle Pryor.

Oregon State's Lyle Moevao did an outstanding job managing the game and completing key throws against the Trojans, an overlooked reason why the Beavers pulled off their upset.

But Moevao was the exception.

Several Oregon quarterbacks were sidelined because of injuries before the Ducks played USC. Arizona State's Rudy Carpenter was hobbled by a bad ankle injury and Washington State was decimated by injuries.

Other than Tuitama and perhaps an improved Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame, there are no established quarterbacks left on USC's schedule, though Stanford's Tavita Pritchard showed last season that he is capable of engineering an upset of the Trojans.

"A lot of teams are playing with their second and third guy, and it's been hard on them," Carroll said, speaking generally about the Pac-10. "The big issue this year in the conference is the quarterbacks' inability to stay healthy."

In contrast, the 2004 team went up against several top quarterbacks in the first half, including Virginia Tech's Bryan Randall, Stanford's Trent Edwards, California's Aaron Rodgers and Arizona State's Andrew Walter.

The second-half schedule featured Washington State's Alex Brink, Oregon State's Derek Anderson and Notre Dame's Brady Quinn.

That Trojans defense still finished in the top 10 in nearly every statistical category, leading the nation in rushing defense and turnover margin.

"We could basically do a lot of whatever we wanted because Coach Carroll knew he could throw whatever he wanted at us and we would do it with some swagger," said Dallas Sartz, who started at strong-side linebacker in 2004.

That 2004 defense thrived -- and survived Cal with a dramatic fourth-quarter stand -- because of a front seven that included two first-round NFL draft picks, tackle Mike Patterson and end Lawrence Jackson; three second-round picks, tackle Shaun Cody, linebacker Lofa Tatupu and cornerback Eric Wright; and a third-round pick, end Frostee Rucker.

Sartz and All-American Matt Grootegoed flanked Tatupu at linebacker. Versatile safety Jason Leach stabilized a secondary that also featured safety Darnell Bing and cornerbacks Kevin Arbet, Justin Wyatt and Wright.

USC's high-powered offense also played a role by building huge leads that forced opponents to put the ball in the air, allowing USC to make 50 sacks and intercept 22 passes.

USC has 15 sacks and eight interceptions this season.

Defensive tackle Fili Moala, a senior who redshirted in 2004, said the line's missteps at Oregon State cost the Trojans an undefeated season but not necessarily a national title.

Line play, Moala said, would dictate the Trojans' destiny and determine whether they're worthy of comparison to the 2004 national champions.

"We'll see when this thing is all said and done," he said, "but I like this defense a lot. I'd put us up against anybody."

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gary.klein@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Stopping power

USC's defense through six games:

*--* 2004 Stats 2008 6-0 Record 5-1 1 Shutouts 2 12.5 Pts. given up 7.8 208 Passing def. 136.5 88 Rushing def. 83.7 296 Total def. 220.2 11 Int. 8 7 Fumbles rec. 8 *--*

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Source: Los Angeles Times.

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