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Turning it around defensively

LOS ANGELES -- A big key in USC's improvement has been its defense, a unit that has recovered from consecutive shaky games against Arizona State and Arizona, respectively, particularly when it comes to stopping the run and creating turnovers.

Against Cal on Oct. 13, the Trojans allowed only two rushing first downs and 35 yards on the ground. Notre Dame rushed for only 41 yards Oct. 22. Stanford totaled 186 rushing yards this past Saturday, but it took the Cardinal 48 attempts to get that total.

In the first five games of the year the USC defense forced five turnovers. It the last three, the Trojans have created nine.

When the defense was having issues early in the season, Monte Kiffin and the coaches said it was only a matter of time before the players adjusted to the schemes. The response to that was mixed at the time, but as it stands right now, the experience factor seems to be winning out.

"You always look for those kinds of leaps and gains in the second year in the system," USC linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "So much of this comes with reps. When you do something over and over again, eventually you're going to hit your stride and I think that's what has happened. It's neat when all the hard work, all the grinding in practice, comes to life on film."

One of the constants in the middle of the defense has been senior linebacker Chris Galippo, who battled injuries and position switches earlier in his career but is now sixth on the team with 37 tackles to go along with four pass break-ups.

"I think it's just that time of the year when everything has come together," Galippo said. "Guys have settled into their positions, everyone is in good football shape and now it's just a matter of putting good games together."

It's important to remember just how many of these players are new to the on-field teachings under this staff. Two keys examples are at outside linebacker. Strong-side linebacker Dion Bailey was on the team last year but he was a safety who redshirted. Weak-side linebacker Hayes Pullard sat out the 2010 season with an injured knee.

Either Bailey or Pullard have led the Trojans in tackles in every game thus far. Both redshirt freshmen exemplify the hope that comes with the young players making contributions this year.

Other contributing newcomers include cornerback Isiah Wiley, who was at Arizona Western College last season, and the trio of LB Lamar Dawson, LB Tre Madden and defensive lineman J.R. Tavai, all of whom were in high school last year.

"We may have been here for two years but we haven't had this group for two years," Barry said. "That's something that is exciting to me."

The increase in turnovers has been a huge factor in recent weeks. The Trojans had an interception to close out the Minnesota game but followed with three games without another pick. Lane Kiffin said at the time that the lack of forced turnovers was the biggest surprise to him with the Trojans. Safety T.J. McDonald intercepted Arizona quarterback Nick Foles twice in game five. Since then the Trojans have added five more interceptions.

"The first half of the year we weren't getting the ball," Galippo said. "When you get takeaways it makes a big difference, that's for sure. The coaches just kept on emphasizing it, and when it rains it pours, I guess. They just started coming."

Against Stanford, it looked for a moment like the pick-six from cornerback Nickell Robey in the fourth quarter was going to be the turning point in the game.

Unfortunately, Andrew Luck picked the remainder of the game to showcase why he is the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy. Luck put a temporary halt to the good defense played by the Trojans as he scored a touchdown on the final drive in regulation and led three touchdown-scoring drives in overtime.

The Trojans will look to put that emotional loss in the rearview mirror Friday night against Colorado, but they also realize the experience against the Cardinal should pay off in the future.

"Even though Stanford was a devastating finish for all of us, those are valuable learning lessons," Barry said. "To have the opportunity against the No. 6 team in the country in three overtimes, it showed them that if you have a chance to step up and make a play you need to do it."

This final month of the season will give the defense a chance to prove that it has, indeed, turned a corner in Monte Kiffin's system, including a stiff test in three weeks with the spread offense of the Oregon Ducks.

For a veteran like Galippo, one who has seen the ups and downs of the defense in his USC career, this is a time to build on the momentum that has been created in recent weeks to assure that the future of the defense is bright.

"We had some bumps in the road against the Arizona schools, but obviously this last week we played Stanford pretty well," Galippo said. "That was big for us. Being able to play in big-time games like that is fun. Now we need to focus on finishing right, that's what we preach around here."

Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at garry@wearesc.com.