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In making the stop, they're now at the top

October 27, 2008|Gary Klein and David Wharton | Klein and Wharton are Times staff writers.

On a day when it fell in every poll but maintained its No. 5 position in the Bowl Championship Series standings, USC on Sunday emerged as No. 1 on one important list.

The Trojans' 17-10 victory over Arizona helped make USC the nation's top-ranked defense going into Saturday's game against winless Washington.

USC gave up only 188 yards against Arizona and supplanted Texas Christian atop NCAA statistics by lowering its per-game average to 215.6. The Trojans also continue to rank first in scoring defense, giving up 8.1 points a game, and second in pass defense (130 yards a game).

After watching film of the Arizona game, Coach Pete Carroll determined that the Trojans succeeded by neutralizing the Wildcats' perimeter passing game.

"That stuff has been their bread and butter all year long and they just couldn't get it done," Carroll said.

That's pretty much the same thing Carroll said about the Trojans' offense and its inability to perform consistently well.

"The things we're doing in practice just didn't show up in the game," Carroll said.

Quarterback Mark Sanchez continues to keep plays alive, but Carroll acknowledged that the junior could run with the ball at times instead of trying to make a play by throwing it.

"There are situations when you have to get rid of that thinking and work the game and manage the game and win it and go home," Carroll said. "He'll do everything right eventually. It's a process of learning how to play and thinking like a seasoned veteran."


Big block

A spectacular cutback run for a touchdown against Oregon was the featured play on Stafon Johnson's season highlight reel.

But a block Johnson delivered against Arizona might stand out even more because it shows how far Johnson has come.

Johnson picked up a third-quarter blitz and sent Arizona safety Nate Ness, a lifelong friend, hurtling end over end, allowing Sanchez to sidestep pressure and deliver what proved to be the game-winning touchdown pass to fullback Stanley Havili.

"I didn't do too much [blocking] in high school and that was an emphasis for me while I'm in college," said Johnson, who starred at Dorsey High. "It's getting much better. . . . I'm at my all-time high right now as far as blocking."

The block was only one part of Johnson's most complete game in 2 1/2 seasons. The junior set up a field goal with a 54-yard punt return, rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown in a career-high 19 carries and caught three passes.

Johnson's decision to field a punt in the end zone, rather than letting it bounce, was a case of inexperience, according to Carroll.

"We worked on it a little bit, but he really hasn't had a chance" to practice that situation, Carroll said. "He's got to let that ball go for sure."


Big stop

The Trojans' rebuilt defensive line, which came into this season facing questions, played a critical role in Saturday's victory.

Arizona had the ball fourth and inches at midfield with about six minutes remaining. Quarterback Willie Tuitama ran a sneak, but USC's interior line got penetration up the middle and stopped him for no gain.

On one level, the fourth-down stand was a contest of brute strength.

"Big dogs versus big dogs," said defensive tackle Fili Moala, who emerged from the pile pumping his fist in celebration. "Our big dogs won."


Quick kicks

After seeming to solve its penalty problems against Washington State, USC was penalized 10 times for 68 yards against Arizona. "It's amazing how poor we are at that compared to our opponents," Carroll said, sarcastically. Arizona was penalized once for 15 yards. . . . USC fell from sixth to seventh in the Associated Press poll, from fourth to sixth in the coaches' poll and from fifth to seventh in the Harris Interactive poll. The Trojans improved from 10th to sixth in the computer average that is part of the formula used to determine the BCS standings.



Up next

USC (6-1, 4-1)

vs. Washington (0-7, 0-4)

Saturday at the Coliseum

3:30 p.m., FS West

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