Muscle keys USC victory

MINNEAPOLIS -- The USC football team has traveled nearly 9,000 miles and flown through five time zones, all to find out what everybody could have told it a month ago back home: It has better athletes than the other team.

When the Trojans realize that, as they did for most of Saturday's 32-21 win at Minnesota, they can be misery to line up against. The Golden Gophers didn't look too cheerful after they tried repeatedly to run the ball into the gut of USC's defense and got spit out on the turf.

Their defense didn't look too perky after USC's offensive line pushed it around and knocked it on its back in the decisive minutes. USC's final two touchdown drives apparently were dreamt up in 1948, right here in the coldest, flattest part of the country: The ideal place for a road grader.

"They certainly leaned on us in the second half with their run game, there's no question about that," Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said.

Is it really that complicated? Just play good defense, relying on a front seven big and mean enough to turn synchronicity into chaos, and run the football. It's the easiest solution to this USC team's most embarrassing shortcoming, its laughable depth.

Have you seen what happens at the end of these games, when the second-unit defense trots in for a taste of playing time? The Trojans have given up touchdowns in the final three minutes of all three games, breaking gamblers' hearts everywhere.

After they beat Hawaii and Virginia in the previous two weeks, the Trojans shuffled off, practically embarrassed by the wins. They could savor Saturday a little more -- coach Lane Kiffin let them sing the school's fight song in the locker room, at last -- and they can thank the biggest guys on their team for the gift. Saturday was a generally dominant game for both the offensive and defensive lines.

The Trojans rushed for 216 yards. They averaged 5.7 yards per carry, with exiled tailback Allen Bradford making his return and piling up first downs. Minnesota, meanwhile, was consumed -- arguably obsessed -- with running the ball. But the Gophers continually handed off to a tailback who ran smack into a wall named Jurrell Casey, or one of his friends. The Gophers ran 37 times and gained 83 yards, a constipated 2.2 yards-per-carry average.

USC defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron yelled out that number --"83!" -- as he was being carted down the hallway, his broken foot propped up.

You can boil this game down to a comparison of running games, because otherwise USC lost it. It had more turnovers, three to two. Maybe it goes without saying, but it committed more penalties, "cutting them down" to seven for 71 yards.

But in the crisp air of the Upper Midwest, it may -- may -- have found an identity that can carry it through games against better teams. Sorry USC fans, but the Trojans have to play those games eventually.

"If we can play defense the way we did most of the day -- versus a good offense -- and we can run the ball the way we did in the second half and not have turnovers, yeah, then I think we'd have an identity," Kiffin said. "But that's a lot of 'ifs.'"

The offensive linemen -- not one of whom weighs less than 280 pounds -- practically floated off the field Saturday. The second-half game plan was a big man's dream. As Kiffin pointed out, it meant they didn't have to pass protect and hear their name called when the quarterback got sacked. It also meant they got to go looking for people to knock down instead of backpedaling, hoping somebody doesn't get past them.

The Trojans dazzled on offense in the middle part of this decade, but their best formula for success nowadays is to get ugly and mean. They have to push people around.

"We just wanted to make a statement and be physical," Bradford said. "Our defense stepped up in the second half and the offense brought it. That's exactly what Coach Kiffin wanted."

At halftime, Kiffin told his players he was going to ride on the offensive line's shoulders. On the drive that gave USC a 26-14 lead, the Trojans called for a run in eight of 10 plays. The capper was a Matt Barkley touchdown pass to David Ausberry near the left sideline.

On the next scoring drive, which moved 91 yards a lot more quickly, the Trojans ran the ball four times in five plays, with Bradford going 56 yards for a score. It was far from intricate. He rumbled up the middle, made one cut and ran through open space to the end zone.

At that point, Minnesota's defense looked defeated. Anybody would have been.

"They were getting tired. I think they wanted to call it quits," USC left tackle Matt Kalil said. "We just kept pounding them."

Maybe there's a lesson in here.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.