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USC a cactus cooler

No. 6 Trojans' defense contains high-scoring Arizona in 17-10 win.

October 26, 2008|Gary Klein | Klein is a Times staff writer.

TUCSON — The defense was solid, if not invincible.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez was effective, if not entirely sharp.

And running back Stafon Johnson was well-rounded, and that as much as anything helped sixth-ranked USC survive perhaps its most important test of the season.

On a warm, clear Saturday evening in the desert, the Trojans outlasted Arizona, 17-10, and stayed in contention for a berth in the Bowl Championship Series title game.

USC entered the game No. 5 in the BCS standings, a position that is not likely to change with Texas, Alabama, Penn State and Oklahoma also winning on Saturday.

But the Trojans improved to 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference with their fourth consecutive victory since a Sept. 25 upset loss at Oregon State.

"It feels good to get a gutty victory like this and to come through in the very end just in the nick of time," Sanchez said.

The victory was USC's first this season by fewer than 28 points.

"We needed a fight, and that's what it was," receiver Damian Williams said. "We needed to know what it felt like to win a close game."

Arizona came into the game with hopes of staying on course for a possible first appearance in the Rose Bowl.

The Wildcats had upset top-10 teams in each of the previous three seasons, defeating seventh-ranked UCLA in 2005, eighth-ranked California two years ago and second-ranked Oregon last season.

But the Trojans were too stubborn.

A defense that recorded consecutive shutouts against Arizona State and Washington State bent but did not break against an Arizona team that was averaging 40 points a game.

After blanking four opponents over 11 consecutive quarters, USC finally allowed a second-quarter field goal and third-quarter touchdown.

But the Trojans limited the Wildcats to a season-low 188 yards, sacked Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama three times and stopped the senior on a fourth-and-one sneak with 5:55 left to help secure victory.

"We knew what was coming, we just had to get down [low]," senior defensive end Kyle Moore said. "I believe this is a defensive team. If we keep playing great defense, teams won't beat us."

Said USC Coach Pete Carroll: "The defense is what gives you a chance to win every time."

Sanchez, who came into the game leading the conference in passing efficiency, had a pass intercepted during the first half and lost a fumble when he was sacked early in the second half.

But the junior completed several key throws when he needed to, including a 30-yard touchdown pass to fullback Stanley Havili that broke a 10-10 tie. Sanchez finished 21 for 36 for 216 yards.

Then there was Johnson.

The junior returned a punt to set up a field goal, carried the load and scored a touchdown to cap a long first-half drive and, perhaps most important, made a key block that allowed Sanchez to throw the touchdown pass to Havili.

The block was delivered midway through the third quarter after Arizona erased a 10-3 halftime deficit.

On the first possession of the second half, Arizona defensive end Brooks Reed sacked Sanchez, forcing a fumble that was recovered by tackle Donald Horton Jr. at USC's 15-yard line. Four plays later, tailback Nic Grigsby scored on a five-yard touchdown run.

Sanchez answered immediately, finding Patrick Turner for 15 yards on the first play of the next possession, then moved the Trojans down the field, reaching the 30 with an 18-yard pass to Williams.

Two plays later, Arizona safety Nate Ness blitzed and was closing in for a hit on Sanchez when Johnson flipped him with a block. Sanchez sidestepped Ness and connected with Havili for the 30-yard touchdown and a 17-10 lead that stood up the rest of the game.

Johnson rushed for 83 yards in 19 carries, returned three punts for 88 yards and caught three passes for 13 yards.

Tuitama completed 14 of 30 passes for 88 yards with an interception as the Wildcats fell to 5-3 overall and 3-2 in conference play.

"I think we left a good opportunity out there, and I was shocked that we couldn't play better offensively," Arizona Coach Mike Stoops said.

Johnson's 54-yard punt return set up a first-quarter field goal and he also scored a touchdown as USC took a 10-3 halftime lead.

USC's defense, ranked second nationally, set the tone early by forcing Arizona to go three and out on the first possession and setting up Johnson's return.

Johnson allowed Keenyn Crier's kick to bounce before grabbing the ball, darting to his right and leaving five Arizona players in his wake.

Johnson cut back to his left toward the Arizona sideline and was not dragged down until he reached the Arizona 25 for a 54-yard return.

The Trojans needed every yard, because the offense went three and out, and David Buehler's 43-yard field goal gave USC a 3-0 lead with 12:29 left in the first quarter.

Arizona finally launched a drive late in the first quarter, moving to the Trojans' 12, then blew a chance for a touchdown when lineman James Tretheway was called for a personal foul after Keola Antolin's six-yard gain to the one-yard line.

The penalty pushed the Wildcats back to the 16 and they had to settle for Jason Bondzio's 30-yard field goal and a 3-3 tie early in the second quarter.

USC answered with a 17-play, 80-yard march, putting the ball in Johnson's hands seven times for 35 yards, most of which came off right tackle behind Butch Lewis.

Sanchez also completed third-down passes of 18 and 15 yards to Williams during a drive that Johnson capped with a two-yard touchdown run for a 10-3 lead with 7:53 left in the first half.

--

gary.klein@latimes.com

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