The setup: After a thrilling 34-33 victory over Arizona State at the Coliseum, the No. 20 Trojans traveled to Arizona to play the role of spoiler.
The story: The Trojans rode the back of redshirt junior tailback Marc Tyler and the defense did just enough as USC held on to defeat the then-No. 17 Arizona Wildcats 24-21, vaulting them into a tie for third place in the Pac-10.
Fond memories of last weekend greeted the Trojans as the Wildcats started the game off missing a 34-yard field goal.
The Trojan offense turned that missed field goal into points as sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley led the offense down the field, completing five passes for 49 yards and ending the drive with a one-yard rushing touchdown to give the Trojans a 7-0 lead.
Minutes later, senior cornerback Shareece Wright forced a fumble the Trojans recovered, putting the offense in good field position to extend the lead. Three plays later, the Trojans were up 14-0 after a seven-yard touchdown strike from Barkley to redshirt junior tight end Rhett Ellison.
All facets of the Trojans offense — passing game and running game — were clicking in the first half, but the second half would be left up to the defense to close out the game on the road.
Defense bends but doesn’t break: The Trojans entered the game ranked 97th in total defense, allowing almost 424 yards per game, and have struggled at times while the Wildcats ranked 19th in the nation in total offense at 450.6 yards per game.
This had all the ingredients for a high-scoring affair, but the Trojan defense managed to contain the Wildcats offense just enough to secure the victory.
A recurring problem for the USC defense all year has been the inability to get any stops on third down and Saturday was no different as the Wildcats finished 11-16 on third-down conversions.
But every time the Wildcats completed long third-down conversions, they weren’t always able to convert those offensive drives into points.
With the Wildcats down 21-14 at halftime, their first drive in the second half proved critical. The Trojan defense allowed two long third-down conversions, and Wildcat quarterback Nick Foles led the offense down the field into USC territory.
Senior linebacker Malcolm Smith forced a fumble the Trojan defense recovered. Again, the offense capitalized off the turnover on a 30-yard field goal by senior kicker Joe Houston that turned out to be the game-winner.
Tale of two halves: A high-scoring first half saw an efficient USC offense score 21 points. Barkley completed 15 of 20 passes for 124 passing yards with a touchdown pass and a rushing touchdown, while Tyler rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Though Barkley looked almost perfect in the first half, he would be far from it in the second half, completing only six of 15 passes for 46 yards and one interception.
The first half featured offense, but the second half would be an entirely different story as defense reigned supreme for both teams. The Trojans only managed a field goal, while the Wildcats scored on a late touchdown pass with about a minute left in the game.
Run, Marc, run: The Wildcats entered the game leading the Pac-10 in rushing defense at 102.7 yards per game, but the Trojans established the run game early and relied on of Tyler, who finished with a career-high 160 rushing yards and one touchdown.
“I felt good, I was in the zone and I was just running hard,” Tyler said.
Establishing the run game allowed the Trojans to control possession of the ball and to manage the game clock, which kept the Wildcats’ high-octane offense off the field.
“We were consistent every run … gaining five, six, seven yards and getting that first down and chewing up the clock,” senior center Kristofer O’Dowd said. “We just wanted to be consistent with that and it really clicked. We did what we had to do to pull out this victory.”
In Arizona’s two conference losses against Stanford and Oregon State, both teams outgained the Wildcats in time of possession by 14 minutes and 13 minutes respectively — Saturday, the Trojans outgained the Wildcats, keeping the ball for 15 more minutes.
“We’re all in the mindset of finishing this out and ending on a good note,” Barkley said. “Not only to send this into a good offseason, but to just finish it for the seniors … for the guys who won’t be coming back. To end on a good note is exactly what we’re trying to do.”