Pac-10 offenses impact USC's defensive numbers

USC coach Pete Carroll focuses on only what matters. That's one of the big reasons his team is riding a 31-game winning streak and is looking for a third consecutive national title.

He's not going to get caught up in a debate on the merits of the Bowl Championship Series system. He's not going to promote his players for individual awards. He's not going to look ahead.

And he's not going to defend his defense.

Not much, at least.

"Look at the numbers," he said.

That's what lots of folks have been doing, but they've done so to point out what many believe is USC's Achilles' heel.

The Trojans, owners of perhaps the best offense in college football history, rank 41st in the nation in total defense and 31st in scoring defense.

Meanwhile, the nation's other two unbeatens, No. 2 Texas and No. 4 Alabama, own defenses ranked in the top seven in yards and points surrendered.

SEC adherents are particularly proud that the conference boasts seven of the nation's top-26 defenses in scoring and yards allowed.

Ah, but here we enter the whole defensive chicken-and-egg debate, and Carroll can't resist a brief observation.

He notes that six Pac-10 teams rank in the nation's top 20 in scoring. Only one SEC team and two Big 12 teams rank in the top 25.

"That statement alone -- it's ridiculous that the [Pac-10] offenses are that good," Carroll said. "It isn't about the defenses. It's the offenses that are so proficient."

Ergo: USC's defense looks vulnerable because it plays in the Pac-10, and Alabama and Texas' defenses look good because they don't.

While the rest of the nation struggles with offensive algebra, the Pac-10 has moved on to calculus, Carroll's theory goes. That's why, for example, LSU gave up 560 yards and 31 points to Arizona State but stymied its other seven, non-Pac-10 opponents to the tune of 258 yards and 11.4 points per game.

USC pounded out 631 yards against Arizona State in its 38-28 win, nearly 200 yards more than LSU produced, and held the Sun Devils to 415 yards.

It's not just that the Pac-10 throws the ball better than any other conference. It also dominates on the ground. Six conference tailbacks rank among the nation's top 25 in yards rushing per game.

When All-America teams are announced at the end of the season, as many as eight Pac-10 players will merit first-team consideration, not including Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna.

So if USC's giving up 20.6 points and 348 yards per game looks bad, it might be because the Trojans don't get to play Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Baylor, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska or Mississippi State -- offenses ranking between 92nd and 112th in the nation, a nether region uninhabited by the Pac-10.

California coach Jeff Tedford's offense ranks 21st in the country, but he doesn't exactly sound like he's licking his chops in expectation of a visit from the Trojans on Saturday.

Achilles' heal? Achilles was Greek.

"As I watch the tape, I don't see a lot of big numbers," Tedford said. "I don't see it. I don't agree with that at all, that that's their Achilles' heel. This defensive front is as good as you're going to find anywhere in college football."

That said, the Trojans lost a lot of talent from a 2004 defense that ranked in the nation's top 10 in nearly every statistical category. Beyond the talent drain, injuries have been epidemic.

Five starters were scheduled to return, but one, cornerback Eric Wright, left the team because of off-field issues, and another, linebacker Dallas Sartz, was lost in the second game of the season to a shoulder injury. Wright's replacement, cornerback Terrell Thomas, also went down for the season with a knee injury in that same game.

Two other starters, sophomore linebacker Keith Rivers and cornerback John Walker, have missed recent action because of injury and won't play against Cal. USC will start more sophomores (five) than seniors (four) on defense Saturday.

Still, that impetuous youth should be an easy target for provoking defensive defensiveness. Shouldn't the Trojans, a prideful bunch of former prep All-Americans, take exception to those who insist they are a weak link?

"What people say is not really a big issue," said junior strong safety Darnell Bing, a finalist for the Thorpe Award.

When asked about the defensive-minded SEC (or is it the offensively challenged SEC?), Bing's machismo doesn't seem to activate.

"We don't watch teams we don't have to watch," he said.

Added junior linebacker Oscar Lua, "Every SEC team we've faced, we've beaten."

Lua is not referring to the Trojans home-and-home sweep of Auburn, which included a 23-0 stomping at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2003. He's specifically alluding to a 70-17 victory posted over Arkansas on Sept. 17.

A week later, Alabama bested the Razorbacks 24-13.

So, clearly, the Crimson Tide's defense is better than the Trojans'.

"The problem with SC's defense is their offense is so good," Stanford coach Walt Harris said. "SC's defense is maybe a notch below [its offense], but I think every Pac-10 coach would love to have SC's defensive players playing for them."

Carroll enjoys watching his offense average 594 yards and 50 points per outing, despite Matt Leinart and company's spending many fourth quarters with a cup of water on the bench.

But Carroll's roots are on defense. It hurts not to dominate.

When he looks at the national scoreboard and sees a 6-3 victory over a Tennessee team that gave up 41 points to Notre Dame or a 13-10 win over an Ole Miss squad that lost to Wyoming for a second consecutive year, he does get a bit jealous of Alabama's stingy defense.

"For us to be allowing around 20 points a game, that's not a number that might make you real proud," he said. "As a defensive coach, I don't like it very much. I like those scores like Alabama plays."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.