USC’s game against Arizona on Saturday night featured many of the mistakes that plagued the Trojans earlier in the season. The defense gave up more than 400 yards, the offense converted less than half of its third-down attempts and turned the ball over, and the team as a whole racked up eight penalties for 60 yards.
But in what seems to be a new trend for USC, the Trojans once again pulled out a last-minute win in spite of the statistic sheets.
USC (7-3, 4-3) upset No. 18 Arizona 24-21 on a chilly night in Tucson, Ariz., exorcising some of the demons still lingering from last season’s late loss to the Wildcats in the Coliseum and marking the first win of USC’s season against a team the Trojans lost to in 2009.
“I’m just extremely excited,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin. “Anytime you go on the road to a top-20 team and get a win it’s extremely exciting. Anytime you go on the road you have to run the ball and play defense, which we did tonight and got the ‘W.’”
Redshirt junior tailback Marc Tyler carried much of the offensive load on a day that featured the Trojans holding possession of the ball for more than 37 minutes, rushing 31 times for 160 yards — career highs in both categories — and a touchdown.
“I feel good about how I played,” Tyler said. “I was able to come in with fresh legs, and I felt great. We were running the ball and controlling the clock. In the third and fourth quarter, we played efficiently on the long drives.”
The Trojans once again jumped to an early lead, scoring on their only two drives of the first quarter to claim a 14-0 advantage. Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley, who started the game on a hot streak by completing 14 of his first 15 attempts for 122 yards, had a hand in both of USC’s scores in the first quarter — he ran one in on a one-yard quarterback keeper and threw the second to redshirt junior tight end Rhett Ellison for the seven-yard score.
“I was just taking what the defense was giving me,” Barkley said. “A lot of the shorter routes were working, getting yards and getting first downs.”
Arizona was able to exploit the USC secondary for a quick score to begin the second quarter, but the Trojans came right back with a 17-play drive that took almost nine minutes, capping it with their third touchdown of the half on a three-yard Tyler run to make the game 21-7.
But Arizona, led by quarterback Nick Foles, responded once again, needing just more than two minutes to post their second touchdown of the night. Foles connected with receiver Travis Cobb on a 31-yard strike to bring the Wildcats’ deficit to just seven going into the half.
The second half seemed to be a reversal of roles, as the defenses that looked so porous in the first two quarters tightened up, and both offenses struggled to do anything productive in their possessions.
The Trojans managed to get into field-goal range in the third quarter, and senior kicker Joe Houston made the most of it, nailing a 30-yard attempt to put USC up 24-14.
The 10-point advantage was enough to put the Trojans ahead for good, despite a late comeback attempt from Arizona in which the Wildcats scored a touchdown with 1:01 left to play in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats were not able to recover the ensuing onside kick, and the Trojans ran the clock out for the hard-earned victory.
“Our entire program revolves around the word ‘finish,’ and that’s what it is,” redshirt junior linebacker Chris Galippo said. “It’s the fourth quarter of the season, we have three more games left. It’s time to really finish. It was just a really great start to these next four games.”
Despite USC posting its highest total rushing yards since the Trojans’ game against Cal, the Wildcats outgained them 382-404. The teams each posted 24 first downs, but Arizona was able to convert 11 of its 16 third-down attempts, a figure that has remained a problem for USC week in and week out.
“You’re doing a good job if you get them to third down … but it doesn’t do any good if you don’t get off on third down,” defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. “We got to third down, but we didn’t win. It was really frustrating.”
The Trojans once again were helped by special teams, though not quite as much from their own side as from Arizona. Wildcat kicker Alex Zendejas missed a 34-yard field goal attempt on Arizona’s first drive, a blown opportunity that proved to be the difference in the final result.
Nevertheless, the Trojans remained positive and said they felt that the win was the product of a collective effort.
“With a good team like this, especially in a hostile environment, you have to have a packed defense, play tough and bring out your running game,” redshirt junior safety Marshall Jones said. “I think we did that and we came out with a ‘W’ because of it.”
The win brings USC above .500 in the conference for the first time since it was 1-0 after defeating Washington State in week four. USC will travel to Corvallis, Ore., next week to face Oregon State.