SAN FRANCISCO -- Two weeks ago, after a shootout victory over the Arizona Wildcats, USC safety T.J. McDonald said it was one of those days where the offense picked up the defense. Thursday night at AT&T Park, the situation was definitely reversed, as it was the Trojans defense which led the way to a 30-9 victory over the California Golden Bears.
Most notably, it was a five-turnover performance by the Trojans that was the difference. Both offenses struggled to get any kind of consistent production. But the USC defense was able to create the turnovers, giving the offense good enough field position to score the points necessary to come away with the victory.
This was no small feat for the USC defense, as it combined to cause only five turnovers in the first five games of the season. The Trojans spent the recent bye week listening to comments from people wondering what was wrong on that side of the ball. The defense responded in the best possible way, by getting it done Thursday.
"Tonight was huge for us as a confidence booster," linebacker Dion Bailey said. "We had to come up and show everybody that we're not that bad of a defense. We really helped pick up our offense tonight, and hopefully next week we will be firing on all cylinders."
The turnover barrage got started on the opening drive when Cal wide receiver Keenan Allen fumbled and Bailey recovered at the Cal 37-yard line. The Trojans didn't score, as a fake field goal went awry, but the Bears wouldn't be so lucky on their other turnovers.
Trojans defensive end Nick Perry forced the second turnover, a fumble on a sack of Cal quarterback Zach Maynard late in the first quarter. USC linebacker Chris Galippo recovered at the Cal 30, resulting in an Andre Heidari field goal and a 3-0 lead.
The Trojans didn't need the defense's help on their next score, a six-play, 80-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 39-yard touchdown pass from Matt Barkley to Marqise Lee. The score gave the Trojans a 10-0 advantage, but it proved to be costly, as Lee left the game with a shoulder injury and did not return.
Lee was the leading deep threat for the USC passing attack before leaving the game, catching four passes for 81 yards. Barkley struggled to get any passing going downfield after Lee left, as Cal held star sophomore Robert Woods in check.
Fortunately for the offense, the defense rose up again, with Galippo intercepting a Maynard pass at the Cal 20 in the second quarter, resulting in another Heidari field goal and a 13-0 lead.
There was a sense that Cal was lucky to be that close. The Bears continued to give gifts, as a failed fake punt set up USC at the Cal 37. Five plays later, Barkley hit Brandon Carswell with a short touchdown pass to give USC its 20-0 halftime lead.
Just when it appeared the Trojans were comfortably in the lead, the Cal offense put together its best drive of the night. Maynard hit three consecutive passes for 24, 18 and 17 yards to give the Bears the ball at the USC 10 with less than a minute to go until halftime. Bailey deprived Cal of a much-needed score, however, intercepting Maynard in the end zone right before the half.
It was the fourth turnover of the night for the Trojans, equaling Cal's turnover output in its previous five games. The Trojans forced a fifth turnover in the fourth quarter, when Bailey added to his impressive night with a second interception. The redshirt freshman linebacker also led the Trojans with eight tackles.
"It was absolutely important for the defense to have a big game tonight," Barkley said. "It was a close game, and those turnovers definitely helped."
Without those turnovers, there is no telling how the game might have turned out. Not only did the Trojans lose Lee during the game to injury, but senior running back Marc Tyler left with dislocated shoulder. Barkley completed only 15 passes for 114 yards to receivers other than Lee. The USC offense had three drives that went for more than six plays, and two of those drives ended up in punts.
Thankfully for the Trojans, the defense did come through. It put this game on its back and delivered the victory. It may not have been the prettiest of wins, but for the 2011 USC defense, the fifth win of the season might be the most satisfying to date.
"If I was going to pick a way to win a game, I would rather win it this way, because it instills confidence in our defense," USC coach Lane Kiffin. "We had been terrible on defense in the red zone, and we put so much emphasis on it, to have that work pay off tonight was huge for us."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.