It may not have been quite what the Trojans had in mind, but they’ll take it.
USC made the most out of two big plays to top Arizona State in an ugly 14-9 win while depending on a defense that had something to prove.
The first game-changing play came when senior safety Will Harris intercepted a Danny Sullivan pass and returned it 55 yards for the Trojans first score at the end of the second quarter. Then, after halftime, receiver Damian Williams took a short pass and ran all over the field before finally diving into the end zone to cap a 75-yard touchdown pass.
The Trojans didn’t need any more than that, as the defense — which was embarrassed after letting up 47 points to Oregon last week — answered the call and held the Sun Devils to only nine points.
USC coach Pete Carroll said it all started with Harris’s pick.
“That was the huge play in the game for us,” Carroll said.
Harris’s stepped in front of Sullivan’s pass and took it back for the Trojans’ first score, carrying all the momentum with him as well.
“Coach Carroll went back to the basic calls and called man-to-man [coverage]” Harris said. “It was empty, I knew it was empty, so I knew it was going to be quick-game three step, and I hopped it.”
Williams caught a short pass from quarterback Matt Barkley on the right side in the third quarter. While receiving key downfield blocks from his teammates, Williams reversed directions, found open space and dove for the end zone for the score.
“I don’t know that we’ve seen a better play than Damian’s play,” Carroll said.
Williams, who has returned two punts for touchdowns this season, looked like he was in special teams form on the play.
“This guy’s a great open-field runner and it turned into like a punt return,” Carroll said.
The night took a turn for the worst for Williams after that, however. He left the game with a sprained ankle and returned to the sideline using crutches. He was unavailable for comment after the game.
Williams’ long catch was by far the biggest play for the passing game Saturday. Barkley had a forgettable night, going 7-of-22 for 112 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Not counting Williams’ touchdown, the true freshman threw for just 37 yards.
The offense converted only 2-of-13 third down attempts. The offense was shut out in the first half, putting up only 76 total yards, which Williams just about doubled with his big play.
“As an offense we can always play better than that,” Barkley said. “I don’t know what it was tonight.”
Luckily for Barkley, the Trojan defense was back in its earlier-season form. After getting blown away for 613 yards last week in a lopsided loss to the Ducks, the USC defense checked back in, creating four turnovers and bailing out a lackluster offensive outing.
“To get right and to get back on track defensively is really obviously important to us,” Carroll said. “It’s such a good night to get four turnovers.”
Arizona State gained some momentum from freshman quarterback Brock Osweiler, who came off the bench to replace Sullivan in the second half. Osweiler led the Sun Devils to their only touchdown on a 23-yard pass to Chris McGaha near the end of the third quarter to cut the score to 14-9.
But thanks to the USC defense, that’s where the score would stay.
“The biggest stat is turnovers,” Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. “You just can’t do that. You can’t do that against USC or any good team.”
In light of Oregon’s shocking upset loss to Stanford, the Trojans remain afloat in Pac-10 title contention.
“For whatever reason, you guys have amnesia,” Carroll said to media members after the game. “You forget that every year, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
After a difficult schedule that had the Trojans play six of their first nine games on the road, USC gets to play its final three games at the Coliseum.
“It’s been quite a ride, from playing in some of the greatest venues in this country,” Barkley said. “But I’m really happy that we’re able to finish this season at home.”