NCF Nation: Los Angeles 0811

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."

Hmm.

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.

Final: USC 17, California 3

November, 8, 2008
11/08/08
11:25
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

LOS ANGELES -- USC's defense is simply extraordinary. The USC offense? Ordinary.

The combination was enough for a 17-3 win over a California squad that has now lost five in a row to the Trojans.

And Pete Carroll improves to 25-0 in the month of November.

The Trojans were in California territory seven times and piled up over 400 yards, but their inability to make drive-extending plays is killing them.

At least in terms of creating shiny, pretty wins that look good on the scoreboard.

Third quarter: USC 10, Cal 3

November, 8, 2008
11/08/08
10:46
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

LOS ANGELES -- Story of this game: defense, penalties.

USC, again, won't win many friends and influence too many pollsters with this performance.

The Trojans had just 58 yards in the scoreless third quarter. Give credit to the Cal defense, which is playing inspired football.

But the Trojans' offensive malaise is baffling. There's too much talent to score this little at home.

The Trojans are also sloppy.

They've been flagged nine times for 95 yards. But the Bears got into the swing of things, too. They've been flagged six times for 40 yards, including an ineligible receiver downfield penalty that cost them a potential game-tying touchdown reception.

The insertion of Kevin Riley at quarterback has done little to perk up the Bears offense. Their best weapons are stupid USC penalties.

Halftime: USC 10, Cal 3

November, 8, 2008
11/08/08
9:46
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

LOS ANGELES -- USC needs more plays. California is in no hurry.

The Trojans offense is averaging 8.1 yards per play. Cal 2.9.

The Trojans only punted once. They scored on two of their other three possessions of the first half -- the third being a when they took over with 51 seconds before halftime.

The Trojans have 211 yards. Cal 83.

Yet the Trojans only lead 10-3.

Obviously, Cal is trying to shorten the game to keep the explosive Trojans offense on the sidelines.

The Bears also have shown an uncanny ability to convert on third-and-long. They are 4 of 8 on third-down conversions and those conversions came on third and 10, 8, 6 and 5.

But the real problem from the Trojans is penalties. They had six for 60 yards in the first half. Two interceptions were killed by penalties, though one was a dubious roughing the passer call against linebacker Brian Cushing.

It looks like good Mark Sanchez tonight. He's 9 of 13 for 139 yards with a beautiful 19-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Turner.

But he's going to need the ball to score.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

LOS ANGELES -- The USC defense is here. The Trojans offense is making plays. But the Trojans penalties are still an issue.

USC, ninth in the Pac-10 with 75 yards in penalties a game, already has been flagged three times for 10 yards -- all on its second drive, which died on the Cal 38.

USC has outgained Cal 112 yards to 28 but has only a 3-0 lead to show for it.

Trojans running back Joe McKnight, who's missed a couple of games with a toe injury, did see action, going 10 yards on his first carry.

Both quarterbacks look sharp.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

LOS ANGELES -- It's raining here just like last weekend at California. Raining sunshine!

Weather will not be a factor.

What will?

Just looking over the two teams depth charts, it seems that California's best -- perhaps only chance -- is decisively winning the turnover battle. Or, at least, winning it like the Bears did last week against Oregon, when Ducks turnovers were catastrophic, accounting for 16 of the Bears 26 points.

That means Cal quarterback Nate Longshore, who will start over the injured Kevin Riley (concussion), will need to play flawlessly, something he rarely does.

That means the Bears defense, which leads the nation with 17 interceptions, needs to rattle USC's Mark Sanchez, who is nursing a tweaked ankle.

There is no way Cal consistently moves the ball on the USC defense. But that doesn't mean it can't be opportunistic and take a few shots downfield and see if it can get Jahvid Best into open space and let him get creative.

Speaking of creative: Might Jeff Tedford have a few trick plays up his sleave? That used to be one of his staples.

Perhaps the Trojans defense will show a weakness with the absence of safety Kevin Ellison, the unit's glue player?

And what if the star-crossed Longshore finds some fairy dust and turns in a dynamic performance -- the sort many expected to see from him on a regular basis after he threw for 3,000 yards as a sophomore?

If that happens, and he leads the upset, the Bears would then be three wins away from their first Rose Bowl berth since 1959.

As for USC, the Trojans have played in four Rose Bowls in five years after winning six consecutive Pac-10 titles. They actually are still eyeballing a trip to Miami.

That's a longshot hope. To make it less long, though, they're going to have to notch some style points.

That means laying a whipping on the Bears.

That's not beyond the realm of possibility. Since losing 27-21 at Oregon State, USC has won five in a row by the count of 214-20. Even with a couple of patsies in that slate, that's pretty darn extraordinary.

With Penn State losing today and Alabama on the ropes, the door may be open a crack.

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