When USC nearly faltered against Arizona on Oct. 1 at home, a number of defensive issues overshadowed what strides its offense had made. It marked the first time in school history it had given up more than 40 points in consecutive games. The 37 first downs allowed were also a program first.
But more than a month later, it appears whatever remaining qualms there were regarding the Trojans’ defense have disappeared.
Facing Washington before a homecoming crowd of 64,756 at the Coliseum on Saturday, No. 18 USC (8-2, 5-2) surrendered just 244 total yards in a 40-17 rout of the visiting Huskies (6-4, 4-3).
“We’ve come a long ways on defense,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “It was great to see the pass rush come alive. If you play like that on defense, we’re going to be hard to beat.”
USC sacked Washington quarterbacks Keith Price and Nick Montana seven times — the most they have had in a game since registering eight against Washington State on Sept. 26, 2009.
“Everybody is being more competitive,” junior defensive end Nick Perry said. “We all compete in practice, and all those things showed up here today. We are better than last year and we’re showing that.”
At halftime, the Huskies, coached by former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, had more penalties — nine for 66 yards — than first downs, of which they had five, struggling to move the ball as the Trojans forced them into a wide number of third-and-longs.
In the early goings, USC struggled to get its own offense going. Though the Huskies did not record a first down until the waning moments of the first quarter, the Trojans were forced to punt on two of their first three drives.
Things eventually did click for USC.
Facing a fourth-and-nine and leading just 7-3 a few minutes into the second quarter, USC lined up to punt, but instead of kicking the ball into Washington territory, junior punter Kyle Negrete fielded the snap and raced down the north sidelines for 35 yards before being taken down at the Huskies’ 20-yard line.
“At that moment, it was time for us to call it,” Negrete said. “It was a player-called play. We got the ‘OK’ from [special teams] coach John Baxter, and we executed it perfectly.”
The Trojans would cap the drive on a 1-yard touchdown run from senior tailback Marc Tyler, giving them a 14-3 lead. On their next drive, fielding the ball near midfield, they marched 51 yards in five minutes for a score — coming by way of an 8-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Matt Barkley to freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee.
Lee, who was hospitalized with the flu Thursday night, finished with nine receptions for 74 yards and one touchdown.
“I didn’t want to sit out, so I called the coaches and told them,” Lee said. “I had a couple IVs Thursday night and Friday. It wasn’t a big deal. I feel good now.”
Kiffin, however, did make a point to emphasize the first-year wideout’s efforts in the moments following the team’s 23-point win.
“Twenty-four hours ago, this guy was in the health center and getting IVs and could barely get out of bed,” Kiffin said. “He’s competitive and that’s why he’s successful. He’s going to be one of the greats to play here for sure.”
Lee opened the second half with a bang as well, fielding the kickoff and returning it 88 yards for a score to give USC a 30-3 lead.
Though it did relinquish two touchdowns in the final two quarters, USC’s defense proved all too much again, limiting the Huskies to just 153 total yards — with 69 coming on their final drive of the game against many of USC’s second-and-third teamers.
“We’re really happy with the progress we’ve made in that aspect from where we were last year,” Kiffin said. “The sacks, pressure on the quarterback and pass defense as well as special teams play really sparked us today.”
The win came despite an offensive attack that seemed to rely on its ground game for arguably the first time all season, as sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods had just two catches for five yards. It marked his lowest totals of the year.
“It proves that [Woods] is not just our offense,” said Barkley, who threw for a season-low 174 yards. “We knew that coming into the game, we’d be able to run the ball on them. But we do have a lot of personnel who can make plays, so that’s good to see.”
Redshirt junior tailback Curtis McNeal keyed the Trojans’ running attack, rushing for a career-high 148 yards on 18 carries, including a 79-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter. Tyler also added 50 yards on seven carries.
“I’m just trying to make the plays,” McNeal said. “The o-line, tight ends and quarterbacks are giving me great blocks to make the plays. [Barkley] is giving me the guidance, and the line makes it easy for us.”
With two games remaining on its 2011 slate, which ends Nov. 26 against UCLA, USC travels to Eugene, Ore., to face No. 7 Oregon on Saturday.
The Ducks, ranked No. 1 at the time, beat the Trojans last season at the Coliseum 53-32.