USC found out months before the season that it couldn't control its destiny.
The NCAA slapped the Trojans with sanctions that prevent them from playing in a bowl game this season and next.
But USC showed Saturday night that it could control the ball for long stretches and play enough defense to spoil the postseason hopes of other members of the Pacific 10 Conference.
USC's 24-21 victory over No. 18 Arizona at Arizona Stadium improved the Trojans record to 7-3, keeping the possibility of a 10-win season.
Junior tailback Marc Tyler led the way, rushing for a career-high 160 yards and a touchdown in a career-high 31 carries as the Trojans handed suddenly sinking Arizona its second consecutive defeat.
"On the road you have to be prepared to run the ball and play defense," Coach Lane Kiffin said. "And that's exactly what we did tonight."
USC utilized first-half scoring drives that ate up nearly nine and seven minutes, respectively, and then handicapped Arizona's comeback threat by taking nearly seven minutes off the clock with a late fourth-quarter drive.
Arizona still pulled to within 24-21 on Nick Foles' 11-yard touchdown pass to David Douglas with 1:09 remaining, but the Trojans recovered an onside kick to secure the victory.
Foles repeatedly burned the Trojans' secondary with passes over the middle, but USC forced two fumbles that set up a touchdown and a field goal that proved to be the difference in the game.
The Trojans' offensive line also kept the Wildcats' noted pass rush at bay, giving up no sacks.
"We came out in the second half and imposed our will," offensive tackle Matt Kalil said. "I think we really wore them out."
USC travels next week to struggling Oregon State, which was upset Saturday by Washington State, and then finishes the season with a home game against Notre Dame and the finale against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
If the Trojans can win out, they will no doubt look back at their performance on the road on a chilly night in the desert.
A week after Stanford routed Arizona to end the Wildcats' hopes for a possible Rose Bowl bid, USC knocked them down to 7-3 overall and 4-3 in the Pac-10.
"We played back-to-back physical teams and we didn't play well against either," Arizona Coach Mike Stoops said.
Arizona had entered the game ranked 10th nationally in rushing defense, but Tyler made the Wildcats look soft.
"I felt like I was in the zone — I wanted the ball and that's what we needed," said Tyler, whose 31 carries were the most since Sultan McCullough ran the ball 39 times against California in 2002. "I felt like I was running north-south. To run the ball 31 times, that's crazy."
The fourth-year junior began the season as a starter but lost the job after three games and struggled through the middle of the season with nagging injuries.
Last week against Arizona State, he came off the bench and rushed for 119 yards but suffered an ankle sprain that limited him during practices.
Tyler, however, looked fit against the Wildcats, rushing for 79 yards and a touchdown in 14 carries during the first half. He also ran hard in the final two quarters, particularly during a third-quarter drive that culminated with Joe Houston's 30-yard field goal that proved to be the winning margin.
But Tyler, who continued to pound away even after reaggravating his sore left ankle, carried the Trojans.
"He was limping out and then he would come back in stronger than before," quarterback Matt Barkley said.
Barkley completed 21 of 35 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown, with an interception. He also rushed for a touchdown.
Foles, the Pac-10 leader in passing yards per game, was 32 of 48 for 353 yards and three touchdowns.
The Wildcats were outstanding on third down, converting 11 of 16 opportunities, and outgained the Trojans, 404-382.
But USC stifled just enough drives to emerge with the victory over a team that beat the Trojans last year in the regular-season finale.
"We definitely could have put them away a little bit more, but we did a good job," said linebacker Malcolm Smith, who forced a fumble.
"Any time you can get a victory over an opponent, especially having lost to them last year, it's a good feeling."
The Trojans led 21-14 at halftime and increased their advantage to 10 points after Smith, who returned an interception for a touchdown last week against Arizona State, knocked the ball from the Douglas' grasp and cornerback Shareece Wright recovered for the Trojans.
The Trojans then launched a 15-play drive that culminated with Houston's 30-yard field goal for a 24-14 lead.