But when it counted most, USC's defense once again responded, something that has been a constant theme of this 2008 season. Mays looked an awful lot like a linebacker playing eleven yards off the line of scrimmage. He delivered some big shots and made sure to wrap up and finish on every tackle.
The defensive line played to their potential in not getting pushed around at the point of attack. Instead of letting the game come to them, they went out and dictated how things were going to go with their opponent. And during the game's most pivotal moment on fourth-and-inches midway through the fourth quarter, Fili Moala and the interior D-Line won the battle by getting lower and moving the pile backwards on Willie Tuitama's quarterback sneak that got nowhere.
When the going gets tough, the USC defense gets going. Rey Mauluga recorded nine tackles. Clay Matthews contributed with five and 1.5 sacks. Kevin Thomas stepped in front of a Tuitama pass in the 3rd quarter to nix any ideas the Wildcats had of gaining momentum on the offensive side of the ball. Overall, USC may have played their best all-around defensive game of the year Saturday night, and it was sorely needed to keep their BCS title hopes alive.
2) Maintain balance on offense – The Trojans ran for 151 yards and threw for another 216. They ran the ball 41 times while throwing 36 passes. But while they kept the Wildcat defense off balance at times, other times we saw them revert back to a predicable system of average play calling and decision making. When the Trojans offense operates on a predictable basis, they seem easy to contain, especially when playing a game outside the friendly confines of the Coliseum.
Stafon Johnson was the man on offense Saturday night. He showed us his most complete performance to date, totaling 188 yards rushing, receiving and returning punts. But perhaps his greatest moment came on an absolute perfect block of former Pop Warner teammate Nate Ness, that made it possible for Mark Sanchez to deliver a pass to Stanley Havili for the game's decisive touchdown in the third quarter. While Johnson started out towards the left side, Ness came in unblocked on the right looking to level Sanchez. Johnson somehow managed to cross in front of Sanchez to get in front of Ness in time to deliver a kill shot at the legs that flipped Ness completely upside down and put him out of the game. That block may have won the game for the Trojans. If nothing else, it exemplifies the manner in which Stafon Johnson plays the game.
3) Contain Gronkowski in the redzone – In order for this key to really have become relevant, Arizona would first have needed to advance into the red zone. SC's defense would have nothing of this. Not in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter or fourth.
The only time Zona possessed the ball in a position to score was off a turnover their defense created on a "decleating" sack of Sanchez by a hard working DE, Brooks Reed. Reed came around the corner and nailed Sanchez from his blind side, dislodging the football and giving the Cats offense their best field position of the night.
There may not be a quarterback in the country that can hang onto the ball while being hit like that. To their credit, Arizona capitalized by tying the game four plays later, 10-10. But good teams always respond and on the very next drive, Stafon Johnson sprung the block heard round Los Angeles and Sanchez answered with the game-winning touchdown pass to his safety net, Stanley Havili.
In total, Gronkowski was limited to two catches for 12 yards. After the eight minute mark of the second quarter, Gronkowski was completely shut down and shut out. Willie Tuitama had averaged 222 yards throwing per game coming in, but only got 88 off against the Trojans. The Cats averaged over 40 points per game before Saturday, but only mustered 10 against SC.
This defensive performance was better than the 10 points they gave up to Oregon, better than the shutouts against ASU and Wazzu, and even gave the Ohio State game a run for its money. And in case you haven't noticed, Virginia currently sits alone atop of the standings in the ACC. Al Groh's boys are averaging over 26 points per game in their last four contests, all wins, but were held to just seven at home against the Trojans.
While the opponents' scoreless streak ended Saturday night, USC may have given their fans their best defensive performance of the season. Look for that to continue next week at home against Washington.