Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
LOS ANGELES -- USC coach Pete Carroll recognized the sea of skeptical looks that surrounded him. He had just announced that he was satisfied with his offense's performance in a 17-3 win over California, and he knew that the gaggle of reporters wasn't buying what he was selling.
|Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIRE|
|USC coach Pete Carroll wasn't sweating his team's lackluster offensive performance in a 17-3 win over Cal.|
Sure, Cal has a good defense. But the Bears give up 21 points per game, so USC's performance was below average.
And the talent on the Trojans offense isn't below average.
It was all part of the plan, Carroll countered. He and the offensive coaches had pulled hard on the reins of quarterback Mark Sanchez and his teammates, knowing that the Bears had forced more turnovers than any other Pac-10 team.
"You guys don't understand that in this game we were very concerned about their defense taking the football away from us," Carroll explained. "Mark was schooled all week long to not take any chances down the field, to not feel bad about dumping the ball off or throwing the ball away, so we don't give them a chance to do what they do so well. I thought he did a beautiful job of that today."
Sanchez's numbers were, well, fine. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 238 yards with two touchdowns and -- most importantly -- no interceptions.
But still. 17 points?
Carroll would be glad to know that Sanchez, who was hardly his typical buoyant self after the game, stayed on message, despite questions probing for frustration or self-doubt.
"I didn't throw four touchdowns or for 400 yards but this is just as sweet. I played like this team needed me to tonight," he said. "They can't all be 52-7, 69-0 or 56-0."
Those are previous USC blowout wins. But a team fighting to get back into the national title race can never have too many blowout wins.
The numbers weren't bad. The Trojans gained 411 yards, including 173 on the ground. They only had one turnover, a Joe McKnight fumble in Cal territory after a spectacular run. They averaged 6.2 yards per play.
Part of the problem was Cal's well-executed plan to play keep-away with the Trojans. Through three quarters, the Bears had nearly an eight-minute advantage in time of possession.
Still, USC didn't get adequate value out of nine trips into Bears territory, in large part because they were 4 of 11 on third down.
Asked about third down, Carroll immediately started waxing poetic about his defense, which again was, to use his term, "crazy lights-out."
He's right about that, with linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing and safety Taylor Mays combining for 24 tackles and many crazy-lights-out hits in another utterly dominant performance.
But the question was about his offense.
"I don't know," Carroll said. "I'll have to go back and look at what the issues were. I know we were a little bit off."
Receiver Patrick Turner hauled in a 19-yard touchdown from Sanchez on a beautiful throw through a small window in the Bears zone. It was one of the few offensive highlights, but Turner didn't have an explanation for why his unit isn't more consistent nine games into the season or what they might do to fix the problems.
"That's not my job -- I don't know," he said. "I just run what I'm supposed to run."
Turner then volunteered that it's the "little things" derailing the offense. Center Kristofer O'Dowd said it was "missed assignments" and not being familiar with Cal's unusual 3-4 defensive front. Receiver Ronald Johnson, who caught the other Sanchez TD pass, offered that it was hard to pass because the Bears drop so many players into coverage.
Each offered that "a win is a win."
But every win isn't equal in the BCS system, and as good as the defense was, pollsters might raise a skeptical eyebrow at 17 points.