Defense finally carries load

LOS ANGELES -- It was a game the USC Trojans absolutely needed to win to keep hope alive for a berth in the Pac-12 title game.

In those situations, you figure the team will turn to the usual suspects such as Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee to lead the way. Those two players certainly did their part in a 38-17 victory over Arizona State, as Barkley completed 20 of 33 pass attempts for 222 yards with three touchdowns and Lee caught 10 balls for 161 yards and a score.

With all that Barkley and Lee did, though, they were not the biggest storylines for USC in this win.

In a somewhat surprising development -- at least for those who watched the Trojans give up over 1,300 yards of offense in the last two weeks -- it was the USC defense that powered the machine against an ASU offense that was ranked among the national leaders in several categories.

Overall, USC's defensive numbers were impressive: four turnovers, seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss while limiting ASU to 71 rushing yards and only 15 first downs.

What really stood out, though, were the individual performances from so many players across the board.

Lamar Dawson led the team with 11 tackles and also made an interception. Hayes Pullard had nine tackles and a sack. T.J. McDonald had seven tackles and an interception. Along the defensive line, freshman Leonard Williams had six tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception, and George Uko and Wes Horton each made five tackles. Uko had 1.5 sacks and Horton had two.

"I thought the storyline of this game was the defense," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "We were very aggressive and got after the ball to create turnovers. That kind of effort was led by the front seven. We wanted to harass the quarterback, and I thought we did a good job of not letting him get comfortable."

Every time the Trojans needed a play in this game, the defense provided it, and that is a sharp contrast to recent results. The defense hadn't just played poorly in losses to Arizona and Oregon, it was record-breaking in terms of the statistics. Kiffin talked often this past week about how the defense had actually played well for the first 7 1/2 games and that it was simply five bad quarters of defense that had been seen the past two weeks.

"This game was really important for us as a defense," McDonald said afterward. "The offense had been holding us up the last two weeks and we wanted to hold up our end. We know how important the final two Pac-12 games are for us -- they are like a playoff -- so we wanted to come out here today and play well so that we head into the rivalry game against UCLA [Nov. 17] with full force and a clear head."

On the offensive side of the ball, the big-time performance came from Curtis McNeal, a senior returning 1,000-yard rusher who had seen his playing time reduced in recent weeks and his starting role given to Silas Redd. McNeal had been struggling with injuries -- he didn't travel with the team for the Arizona game -- but he kept his effort up, and Kiffin said he had his best week of practice this past week.

That turned out to be an important development because Redd was unavailable on Saturday and McNeal ended up carrying a major load. With the USC offensive line having a strong day against a solid Sun Devils front, McNeal carried the ball 31 times for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

"It felt good to play a big role," McNeal said. "The only thing that matters to me is that the team gets the W and we were able to do that today."

McNeal ran inside, he ran outside and he even ran a few student body pitch plays -- much to the delight of the USC faithful -- but Kiffin was most impressed with another element of his performance.

"To carry the ball 31 times and only have one negative rushing yard is a key hidden stat," Kiffin said. "That's a credit to Curtis and the offensive line on that one."

The best news for the team after Saturday is that there were contributions from all areas, not just a few players, and that has to give the team a boost of much-needed confidence as it prepares for its two biggest rivals.

For all the ups and downs of the current USC season, the victory Saturday means the next two weeks will feature games against UCLA and Notre Dame with a league title, a possible chance to debunk an undefeated season and a potential Rose Bowl berth on the line. If you're a USC fan, you simply can't ask for much more than that heading into the final stretch.