Defensive lineman Antwaun Woods walked into the USC post-game news conference room after a 38-30 win over Arizona like a kid visiting Disneyland for the first time. Woods was sitting alongside interim head coach Clay Helton and the Trojans' top two offensive stars — one who set a freshman school record and another that had just played through a broken hand to put up big numbers.
It was a new experience for the redshirt senior nose tackle.
“This is like the real deal right here. I ain’t never been in this room before,” Woods said with a wide grin.
To him, it was like playing a video game. It was a bit surreal because interior defensive linemen don’t typically get applauded, but Woods had just had arguably the best game of his USC career with two sacks and three tackles for loss while tying his career high with six total tackles. And the defensive line had shut down the Wildcats’ potent ground game.
“When you hold a great rushing team to 60 yards, you get to come in,” Helton told him.
As a nose tackle in a three down-lineman front, Woods is usually one of the cogs of the machine — the timing belt of the defensive engine. When he’s doing his job, you probably aren’t going to notice him, but he’s going to be enabling all the other pieces around him to work smoothly.
“Any time you play our style of front, when you play some three down, the most important guy in my mind is the nose guard,” USC defensive line coach Chris Wilson said. “If you are strong on the interior side of the football, it gives you a chance to really hammer the run game because it creates one-on-ones for everybody else.”
It’s rare for Woods to put up big numbers because he’s often taking on a double team and occupying two of the offense’s interior linemen.
“I take it as the ultimate sign of respect,” Wilson said of double teams. “If you feel like you can single block our nose guard…if we’re going to get single blocks from that interior spot and not be effective, we’ve really got to really re-evaluate what we’re doing.”
To Woods, it’s a part of the game he relishes and a point of pride.
“I like it. It sucks that I don’t get a lot of fame, a lot of sacks, a lot of tackles, but hopefully somebody notices one day. Hopefully somebody realizes that nose tackles are people, too. I like the down and dirty work. I like to be the guy that is the unselfish player that takes on double teams, so my teammate can have a single block or a clear run through. It’s down and dirty football.
“I kind of like playing double teams rather than one-on-ones. It’s just the nose tackle position,” Woods said. “Me beating a double team is like a sack. The fact that I can have 600 pounds and they still can’t move me, it feels like a sack. That’s my way of getting fame and feeling like I did something.”
But what about when Woods is facing a mere 300 pounds and gets an opportunity at one-on-ones? That’s when you see him blowing up plays in the backfield.
“It’s like I wish you would. It’s kind of like ‘Thank you Lord!’ Like ohhh this is easy.”
With Arizona’s bevy of run-pass option plays that can involve the quarterback rolling the pocket, the Wildcats often left the center alone to try to handle the 6-foot-1, 320-pound Woods. It wasn’t their smartest idea.
“He clogged the middle,” USC linebacker Su’a Cravens said. “It reminded me of when Leonard [Williams] was on the field last year. He’s so big and so talented on the inside that there’s not a lot you can do when he’s on his game. He shut down inside zone along with our middle linebacker and our ends.”
Arizona entered with the Pac-12’s second-best rushing attack. The Wildcats were rushing for 265 yards per game — No. 11 in the country. They featured three 500-yard rushers and were fourth in the nation averaging 6.05 yards per carry.
But against USC? Not so much. Arizona ran the ball 32 times for just 60 yards. Six yards a carry? Try 1.9.
“We knew going into the game that it was going to be a dogfight,” Woods said. “We took it upon ourselves to to be disciplined for four quarters and fit the run over and over and over again because we knew they were going to keep coming back to the run game.”
It came down to winning one-on-one matchups, which is something the Trojans’ defensive line had struggled with early in the season. Wilson said it was key, especially going against a spread offense where the offense is constantly trying to create and exploit a numbers advantage.
“We were able to get a few one-on-ones for whatever reason and when that happened 'Twaun really did a great job taking advantage of it.”
“We told our front seven that you’re going to have to make plays,” Cravens said. “There are going to be plays where there aren’t enough guys and you’re going to have to beat one-on-one and make the tackle. I think our guys took that personally and did that.”
After the defensive line’s troubles earlier in the year, they have been one of the strengths during USC’s three-game winning streak. Cravens feels the the group is playing with more confidence in their assignments. Getting the disruptive Claude Pelon back from injury against Arizona also helped, but inevitably it all comes back to the man in the middle.
“The thing that we measure is are we improving everyday," Wilson said. "That’s what [Woods] is doing. He knows that he’s at the end of the tunnel. He wants to play as well as he can and help this team.”