USC's defense keeps title hopes alive

SEATTLE -- It isn’t hard to pinpoint the moment when USC’s campaign turned from ordinary to extraordinary last season.

Ask any player or coach and they will tell you it shifted the moment Jawanza Starling saw the football rolling around the grass at Notre Dame Stadium, picked it up on a perfect bounce and ran 80 yards for touchdown that turned around the game and USC’s season.

More than a couple of USC players were hoping history might repeat itself this season as they left CenturyLink Field in Seattle Saturday night after Starling once again made the play of the game.

With Washington driving and on the USC 4-yard line, down 10 points with over 11 minutes left in the game, Starling stripped the ball loose from quarterback Keith Price and fell on it. He didn’t return it for a touchdown this time but the play killed Washington’s momentum, quieted the sold out crowd and gave USC the win.

“It would be pretty cool if it happened again,” Lane Kiffin said, standing outside USC’s locker room after the game. “A road win in a tough place to win much like that was before. You never know.”

As much as Starling would like to see USC’s offense start playing like they did after his season-changing play last year, he doesn’t really think the play will need to spark a Trojan defense that has been solid all season.

“Against Notre Dame we were in a defensive rut and that fumble was a spark-plug for the whole season,” Starling said. “This season, I feel the defense has been playing well the whole year. It was a spark-plug for this game, it changed the whole momentum for the game, but it wasn’t anything we did differently on defense.”

Coming into this season Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal stole most of the headlines nationally and billboards locally as many expected USC’s offense to easily outscore the opposition every week. Instead, T.J. McDonald, Dion Bailey, Nickell Robey, Leonard Williams, Morgan Breslin and USC’s unsung defense have helped the Trojans stay in contention this season while the offense finds itself.

Take a look at Saturday’s game against Washington. While USC was unable to score a single point and while Barkley was only able to complete three passes, USC’s defense shut down Washington after the Huskies' third quarter touchdown. Washington’s last four possessions ended in a missed field goal, fumble, interception and another fumble.

“The story of the day was the defense. It was a phenomenal job by our defense, especially in the fourth quarter,” Kiffin said. “For those of you that have been covering us over three years, that’s been our issue, fourth quarter defense. I thought our guys closed the game and flew to the ball.”

USC’s defense was so bad, particularly in the fourth quarter, when Kiffin first took over USC three years ago, many wondered Kiffin would handle it if the heat rose on his defensive coordinator, legendary defensive guru and father, Monte Kiffin. Fast-forward to this season, and USC is finally beginning to play the kind of defense that made Monte a legend in Tampa Bay.

“It’s a testament to how we’ve been practicing,” Starling said. “We’ve been practicing very hard and they say how you practice is how you play and that’s carried over to the games. It’s a more experienced defense than it was a couple of years ago. We’ve been in the system for awhile and a lot of the guys know what you’re supposed to do and we’re just having fun out there and playing football.”

It’s also a far more confident group than it was even last season. Players not only expect to play well but predict it and announce it during games.

After Robey was beaten by Washington receiver Kasen Williams for a 17-yard touchdown in the first quarter, he ran to the sideline and told Kiffin and secondary coach Marvin Sanders that it wouldn’t happen again.

Not just the touchdown, but a Williams catch.

“When I got to the sideline I said that he wasn’t going to catch another pass the whole game,” Robey said. “I reminded Lane after the game. I told coach Sanders too. It didn’t happen. I covered him every play.”

USC has forced 16 turnovers this season, which is 12th best in the nation, and intercepted 11 passes, which is the fourth best total in the country. Their ability to create turnovers, especially at critical times this season, is easily the biggest difference in a unit that has kept USC’s title hopes alive while the Trojan offense, ranked 57th nationally, continues to search for answers.

“We’re just attacking the ball and going after it with a purpose,” McDonald said. “We're not just going for a tackle now but going after the ball with a purpose to get the ball out and having the attitude that that’s our ball.”