The late-game hype surrounding the USC-UCLA game overshadowed the strongest defensive effort the Trojans have put up in weeks.
No. 18 USC forced four turnovers against its cross-town rival on Saturday, highlighted by junior linebacker Malcom Smith’s first quarter interception that was returned 62 yards for a touchdown. Smith was honored on Monday as both the Pac-10 and National Defensive Player of the Week.
Redshirt senior safety Will Harris and redshirt senior cornerback Josh Pinkard also intercepted passes as USC’s defense returned to dominating form and shut down the Bruins for the better part of the game.
USC coach Pete Carroll was so confident in his defense that he didn’t mind punting the ball away when his offense failed to get the job done, which happened often during Saturday’s contest.
“If you notice, there were a number of times on third and long, we didn’t take the chance on going down the field,” Carroll said after practice Monday. “In that mode, we were thinking pretty conservatively and thinking follow what we play on defense as long as we could. In years past, it’s been very similar in [the UCLA] game.”
The Trojans’ defense appeared far more effective than it had in recent weeks, most notably in lopsided losses to Oregon and Stanford. Freshman defensive end Devon Kennard said the turnovers helped spark the team’s dominating performance Saturday.
“We spent the two weeks really concentrating on getting prepared for the game and getting mentally ready,” Kennard said Monday. “I feel like we came out there all flowing together and playing well as a defense and as a team.”
Despite the offense’s inability to move the ball most of the game, Carroll said he was impressed with the way offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates ran the attack and blamed the offense’s ineffectiveness more on the Bruins’ solid defense and Trojans’ penalties than the team’s play-calling.
One play call has still managed to stick in the minds of many — freshman quarterback Matt Barkley’s 48-yard touchdown pass to redshirt junior Damian Williams with under a minute remaining that sparked tensions between the Bruins and Trojans. Two days later, Carroll was still hearing opinions about the play.
“I think there’s a certain amount of response to it, but I don’t think it’s anything out of what you would imagine would happen,” Carroll said.
The Trojans were not able to avoid injuries during their win Saturday. Senior special teams specialist Garrett Green tore his ACL and junior running back Joe McKnight bruised his left quad in the second half and did not return to the field.
Upon hearing about Green’s injury, Carroll said Monday that he was crushed that his senior’s career would end in such a way and explained how important he thought Green was to the younger players around him.
“He’s been a great leader over the years, particularly this year,” Carroll said. “I really hate that that happened to him because he was really contributing in so many ways and was such a great example for the young guys of how you can find a way to help the football team win.”
McKnight said he had to take himself out of the game because he couldn’t run any longer. He hopes to practice Tuesday.
“I’ll try to run around a little bit and get back my full range of motion and try to work until Saturday,” he said.
After practice, Carroll shared his thoughts on the dismissal of Notre Dame’s head coach Charlie Weis. During his five-year tenure at Notre Dame, Weis led the team to a disappointing 35-27 record, including a 6-6 season that ended in four straight losses this year.
“Charlie made a good run at it there. It didn’t go the way he wanted it to,” Carroll said. “It’s a very difficult place to coach, and the expectations are extraordinary, and it didn’t quite work out. But he gave everything he had and busted it out.”