October 27, 2008

News and notes from Arizona

When USC Trojan punter Greg Woidneck runs onto the field on fourth down, it usually means the Trojan offense couldn't manage to put points on the board.

And in football, conventional wisdom states that it's always best to keep the defense off the field.

But instead of viewing a punt as an offensive failure, Trojan defenders like Rey Maualuga see it as a good thing.

It means they get to go frustrate an opposing offense just like they did Saturday during a 17-10 win at Arizona.

"We took it upon us to thank the offense for punting the ball so we could go back out there and platy more defense," Maualuga said. "At a certain point we're excited to just go out there and play.

"If it was on us to put the game on our backs and save the game, we'll do it."

Saturday, more or less, it was.

With the Trojan offense sputtering, the USC defense made it their mission to keep Arizona out of the end zone and off the scoreboard - with amazing success considering the Wildcats had been averaging over 40 points per game.

"They go out there every play, knock skulls and won't let that (expletive) happen," offensive guard Jeff Byers said. "Walking in this locker room just know, I was like, 'Thank you, defense.' On offense, we stalled every once in awhile, but the defense, every snap they went out there and played (all) out.

"You can't ask for more than that."

Brian Cushing said that's not true.

Despite leaving the field with a win in a dominant performance, the cake was missing its icing.

"We didn't shut them out," Cushing said. "That's the only thing we didn't do. Any time a team scores points, we're not happy about it."

Still, defensive tackle Fili Moala said the defense's dominance isn't in his head while he's out on the field. But afterwards, though, it's hard to ignore.

"It's hard to think of it like that because we're just out there playing," Moala said. "Shoot, now that I look back on our last four games, our defense has been really stepping up. We've been really solid kind of making things smooth sailing for everyone else.

"We're playing really solid ball right now. We're confident. We're smart. We're fast. Right now, we're really just playing to our potential."

And Pete Carroll said that'll make his team tough to handle.

"The defense is what gives you a chance to win every single time out," he said. "They're playing great football."

Let's get physical

For fans of big hits and near-constant displays of toughness, Saturday's game at Arizona should've hit the spot.

Numerous Wildcats took big hits. Taylor Mays knocked Keola Antolin out of the game with a nasty shot. Clay Matthews shook up Willie Tuitama with a sack that rivaled decapitation. Stafon Johnson took out safety Nate Ness by upending him with a big block.

Coincidentally, Johnson and Ness were once Pop Warner teammates.

Even Mark Sanchez got into the mix, lowering his shoulder into an Arizona defender along the sideline, knocking him back onto his rear right in front of the Trojan bench.

"This was a really tough football game tonight," Carroll said. "These were two really tough defenses knocking each other out."

Maualuga said the Trojan defense got familiar with Arizona's offense and teed off.

"When you learn what they're trying to run," he said, "the game gets pretty easy."

One-man gang

Johnson turned in a bruising performance himself.

In addition to a highlight-reel block, Johnson led USC in rushing yards and carries, scampering for 83 yards on 19 attempts.

"I thought Stafon Johnson played a great football game tonight. He was running the football. He was just tenacious," Carroll said. "He made a great block on the touchdown pass that we throw to Stanley. He scores a touchdown. He runs the punts all over the field. I just thought he had his most impressive game even if the numbers aren't necessarily there.

"That was a fine, fine effort by him. We were really riding on his shoulders tonight. He did a great job to carry us."

Johnson finished with a game-high 184 all-purpose yards.

Naked Night

Playing in just their second close game of the season, Carroll and his staff had to earn their paychecks on the sidelines, he said.

"We had a lot of coaching going on tonight with the score so close and dealing with the clock, trying to figure out how to finish the thing off," Carroll said. "There were a lot of cool things on our sidelines just trying to get the game managed well."

But the Trojan head coach did make a mistake in telling Sanchez to try and run when he gets out of the pocket.

"Mark was a little uncertain on the nakeds," Carroll said. "I had mentioned to him to take off and run a couple of times on those nakeds when he gets out, and it screwed him up. He was thinking about running, and he got a little indecisive.

"I never should've said it. That's my mistake."

Extra Points

• In the week leading up to the game, Carroll and the Trojan defense focused on limiting two of Arizona's biggest weapons, receiver Mike Thomas and tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Safety Kevin Ellison and Cushing handled Gronkowski, limiting him to just 12 yards on two catches.

"I thought Cush and Kevin Ellison did a great job on Gronkowski," Carroll said. "He's a great player, and he wasn't a factor in this game. Those guys had a lot of opportunities to cover him and work his area. They really came through in a big way."

Thomas caught six passes for 45 yards, but in the second half, he wasn't on the receiving end of a single ball.

"He had six balls in the first half, and I saw that," Carroll said. "We knew that's where all the balls were going. We really wanted to take care of him."

• The Trojans caught a break late in the game when Johnson fumbled the ball deep in USC territory. Anthony McCoy picked up the fumble and ran it 23 yards.

"We practice that stuff all the time," Carroll said. "The ball jumped up in front of him, he scooped it up and took off for the end zone. It was a great play."

• Fullback Stanley Havili had a big day, catching five passes for 67 yards - including the game-winning touchdown. He also ran for big yards, carrying the ball three times for 17 very important yards.

Havili also had a 51-yard run called back due to a holding penalty.

• The flag on the final play of the game was for sideline interference. By rule, it's a dead-ball foul. That means despite the flag came against USC on the final play of the game, the penalty cannot be enforced if there's no time left on the clock.

• The Trojans were flagged for 10 penalties, and Arizona was hit with just one.

• Arizona's third-quarter touchdown was the first points allowed by the Trojans in the quarter all season.

• After starting the game 8-for-12, Tuitama completed just 6-of-18 for 37 yards.

Damian Williams led USC with 77 yards receiving on five catches.

• USC's 17 points were the lowest amount for the Trojans since last year's loss at Oregon.

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