The USC Trojans got a much needed victory on Saturday as they defeated the Arizona Wildcats by a score of 41-34 in front of 46,399 in Tucson. The Trojans were led on this day by the defense as they returned two interceptions for scores and had six sacks but more importantly they came up with those plays at the key moments to help insure the win. Kris Richard came up with his big play to seal the game on an interception returned for a score late in the 4th.
We made the plays
It was by no means the prettiest of the 681 wins in the history of USC football but for this team there is no concern over loss of style points. What this game represented was the first time this season when faced with adversity that we were able to respond and make the key plays necessary to come out with the win. The most obvious example of this is the interception return for touchdown by Kris Richard and that play was certainly the one which sealed the game but just as important was Kevin Arbet getting a pick return and score of his own in the first half. The timing of the Arbet play was critical because the Trojan offense was struggling to get anything going and the Wildcats were already up by 7 and driving for another score. It was at this point that the Trojans needed someone to step up and Arbet did just that to foil what was actually a well set up screen pass and take it back for a 70 yard score. The Trojans rode the momentum swing provided by that play as they picked off another pass and then ran off 21 points in a row with the kind of offensive explosion we know is possible. Of course, we did our best to give the game back in the 2nd half and the familiar pattern of this season was falling right into place as the Wildcat punt returner raced into the end zone but a fortunate whistle brought the play back and soon it was Richard who put himself in the right place at the right time and suddenly the Trojans had done enough to walk off the field in victory.
Notes from the Sidelines
Lonnie Ford and Shaun Cody had sacks on the final two plays of the game for Arizona to help seal the victory. Ford has been a consistent big play performer this season while Cody has as much potential as any freshman we have seen on defense since Chris Claiborne…..Mike Pollard was all over the field and batted down a key pass at the line which led to the Omar Nazel pick…..Devin Pitts caught a key 3rd down slant pass and we also saw a nice reception from walk on Donald Hale, who got the start after Kareem missed a practice
Alex Holmes has really played well over the past 4 games and he looks more confident on the field. He had his usual assortment of punishing blocks but he also added a terrific one handed grab in the end zone and consistently makes plays with defenders draped all over him. Don't be surprised to see Holmes turn into one of the real leaders of the team next season.
Troy Polamalu has been the best player on the team this year and it's easy to take for granted the fact that he's such a good open field tackler and also contributes on special teams. He got to the QB early on a blitz and could play RB if needed.
The 70 yard interception return for a touchdown by Kevin Arbet was a terrific read by Arbet at a time when his team needed a play. Arbet has been a clutch performer all season but left this game with an ankle injury.
David Davis has not only come in this year and put an end to our placekicking woes but he is now a dependable weapon.
Key to Game: Live by the pass, die by the pass
When a college football team makes a commitment to the pass offense it is natural to assume that the effectiveness of the offense is going to depend upon the quarterback and that is exactly what we saw on Saturday. Carson Palmer threw the ball a season high 49 times and within those throws we saw both the best and the worst of Carson while the fortunes of the team rose and fell right along with him. An early interception was thrown just out of reach enough for Kareem Kelly to tip the ball away to the Arizona defender and the Trojans fell behind. A pair of interceptions gave Carson the opportunity for some momentum and he took advantage of it for 3 straight touchdowns, including passes to both of his tight ends and a Byrd run that ended a long 12 play drive. When Carson is in a rhythm it's a fine sight to see but he also threw 32 passes in the first half which means that the running game, led by a solid if unspectacular effort from Byrd, never got a chance to establish a rhythm of it's own so when USC came out for the 2nd half with an 18 point lead they weren't able to control the ball. Arizona established the run in the 3rd quarter while Carson cooled down with some overthrows on deep passes and so far this season that has been a recipe for trouble. Carson was able to recover and lead the team on a key drive for a field goal in the 4th quarter that included a clutch 3rd down completion to Pitts and in the end it proved to be enough but the inability to run the football in order to protect a lead means there is little margin for error at the QB spot.
Kris Richardsealed the game when he guessed right on a short route and picked off the pass for a game winning touchdown return. Richard had given up a touchdown pass earlier in the 2nd half but came back with his 3rd interception TD return as a Trojan. Ronnie Lott will want to talk to Kris, however, after seeing a Trojan #42 get absolutely run over by Clarence Farmer in a play that took Richard's helmet off with some hard running..... In every game this season the opponent has scored first…..Tucson native Doyal Butler had a rare pass thrown his way in front of the home fans but it was dropped…..The strategy to use the squib kickoffs worked to not allow any big runbacks but the problem is the Wildcats consistently got the ball in decent field position…...The defensive line had two picks on the day (that gives them 3 for the season) as Omar Nazel had one that set up an Alex Holmes touchdown while Bobby DeMars made a very nice grab of a ball at his feet in an athletic play…..The coaches are trying to find a way to get Matt Cassel on the field. Cassel is a better athlete but is otherwise very similar to former Trojan QB John Fox who also saw action at TE and LB.
Pete Carroll got in hot water early this season when he made the comment that "I've got the players I've got and right now that's not good enough" and it's natural to assume that one of the guys he was talking about at the time was a 3rd string fullback named Sunny Byrd who had never carried the ball in a game and wasn't exactly waiting for his breakout performance. Fast forward a few weeks, however, and Byrd has come to represent what many feel is all that's right with Trojan football and want to see more players just like him. Sure, he may be a step slow to break the big gain and you can't have a backfield full of Sunny Byrd's but he's cranking out sixty yards a game and we haven't seen a back run as hard through the hole as him in a long time and that effort has been refreshing. The offensive line knows when the running back is doing his job and busting his butt to earn the extra yards and they've responded with an improved effort as well. One of the things that makes college football great is the opportunity for a Sunny Byrd to get his chance and to see that person make the most of it and right alongside Byrd has been another overachiever in Charlie Landrigan. It has gotten to the point where it is no surprise to see Landrigan catching 3 or more passes per game in addition to his blocking duties and this is from a player who was considered little more than a throw in recruit to go along with pal Malaefou MacKenzie out of high school. Byrd and Landrigan not only take care of their business in the backfield but both are active on special teams with the two combining on one punt coverage tackle in the 3rd quarter. Their job as role players can only go so far, however, because in order for the team to succeed at the highest level we are going to need to see the players around them raise their games to a similar level. If Sultan McCullough could put the same effort into pounding the right hole as we see from Byrd then the two of them could form a wonderful running duo that would complement the passing game. If Kareem Kelly could show the consistency holding onto the ball that we see from Landrigan then he could utilize that God given speed to benefit and raise the performance of his team. We may not have all the players we need but every now and then you can find a hidden surprise in college football with a player like Sunny Byrd or Charlie Landrigan who remind you just how the game is supposed to be played.
Join us the week of the UCLA game at the Blue Moon Saloon in Redondo Beach for our monthly WeAreSC dinner featuring speakers on the state of Trojan football and USC recruiting. Special guest speaker this month is former Trojan OL Mike Lamb. For information, please call 310/543-5557