Monte Kiffin’s battered baseball cap titled over his brow as he glanced toward the ground.
“It’s hard to talk about Oregon right now,” said the Trojans’ assistant head coach for defense when last week’s performance was brought up.
Understandably, it was hard to talk about Oregon. Just seven days earlier, Kiffin’s defense had surrendered school single-game records for points allowed, 62, and yards allowed, 730, in a primetime, nationally televised showdown against the No. 4 Ducks.
So Saturday’s Homecoming game versus Arizona State at the Coliseum represented an opportunity for USC to turn the page and begin anew. And at last, after consecutive losses, something clicked on the defensive side.
The Trojans’ defense surrendered just 10 points and 250 total yards, including just three points — a 28-yard field goal from Jon Mora — and 76 yards in the second half.
“We’re not the Steel Curtain by any means,” Kiffin said, alluding to the famed Pittsburgh Steelers defenses of the 1970s, “but that sure felt good today.”
The 250 yards allowed was USC’s lowest total for any game all season, equaling the same mark set during a Sept. 22 contest against California and a far cry from the 1,318 yards surrendered in its previous two losses. And similar to its victory over Cal, No. 19 USC (7-3, 5-3) was able to win in convincing fashion, 38-17.
“I feel like we got better today,” said freshman defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who finished with one of the team’s seven sacks. “That’s the biggest thing.”
Woods a little off
It might’ve been yet another Heisman Trophy-like performance for sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee, who caught 10 passes for 161 yards and one touchdown, but it was far from a banner day for Robert Woods. The junior wide receiver logged his worst statistical performance of the season, with just two receptions for -3 yards.
“I wish I was making more plays, of course,” said Woods. “But either than that, I’m proud of Marqise for making those plays.”
On the season, Woods has caught 61 passes for 653 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Lee attributed to the drop in production Saturday to circumstances and the fact defenses still “always play” to Woods.
“He gives up himself up for me, basically,” said Lee, a former high school teammate at Junipero Serra in Gardena, Calif.
Added USC coach Lane Kiffin, “He’s human. You want the ball. You play receiver, you want the ball. It was nothing negative. Just, from our relationship, I could feel him. He was a little bit down.”
USC announced late Wednesday night it had been reprimanded and fined $25,000 by the Pac-12 after a student manager had intentionally deflated game footballs below NCAA-mandated pressure levels during a Nov. 4 game against Oregon.
The school subsequently fired the manager.
When asked during the post-game news conference if the ordeal had served as a distraction among players in the days leading up to Saturday’s game, senior quarterback and captain Matt Barkley insisted it hadn’t.
“I don’t think players were really really talking about it in the locker room or anything like that,” said Barkley. “There’s attention on it in social media or what the media pushes out but we weren’t talking about it. Just brush it off and focus on football.”
When further questioned if he had been aware of the deflation, he responded “no.”
“I didn’t know anything was going on and I can’t tell the difference,” Barkley said.
Drop in penalties
For much of the season, USC has stayed the most penalized team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but for the second straight week, it put a damper on this lingering problem. The Trojans were penalized just four times against Arizona State for 30 yards. The week prior versus Oregon, it had been penalized three times for 25 yards.
Junior running back Silas Redd did not play against Arizona State. Lane Kiffin announced he was “not available.” Per school policy, USC does not publicly disclose injury information … Saturday’s game at the Coliseum was the earliest kick off time for a USC game since 1998 … Announced attendance was listed at 80,154