SC's D finds stride in rout of Bears
LOS ANGELES -- As the USC Trojans were wrapping up their most convincing win of the season, a 48-14 dismantling of Cal tempered by mercy, the public-address announcer advertised the next home game.
The Oregon Ducks -- perhaps the No. 1 team in the nation come Monday -- are about to stop by, he said. The crowd made a strange sound, equal parts, "Boo," "Ooh" and "Oh, no." At least, that's what it sounded like on the field.
It has been out there for a while, like a scary stranger walking behind you through a bad part of town. The way Oregon has been jacking up defenses and the way USC had been getting run over, that Oct. 30 game at the Coliseum could be worse than a mismatch. It could be embarrassing.
USC doesn't do embarrassing well, not in this building, not on Homecoming. At least, it didn't used to.
Something happened Saturday that makes you think that Oregon game may not be such a green-and-yellow blur. The USC defense -- beaten down and buried in the newspapers, on the Web and even by some fellow students -- gave off more than a glimmer of hope. It burned like a brush fire.
It consumed Cal. The Bears didn't pick up a first down until the second quarter. They didn't get onto USC's side of the field until eight minutes had ticked off the clock in the second quarter. Their first six drives went punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, interception. Things didn't let up until Trojans coach Lane Kiffin brought in the second unit in the third quarter and Cal eventually drove for another TD.
Yeah, the players heard about that stuff, too. Defensive end Nick Perry said he hadn't heard from any USC students directly, but who's going to say something to him? He's 6-foot-3, 250 pounds. Cornerback Nickell Robey read some of the criticism of coach Monte Kiffin, the 70-year old guru who operates this defense like the wizard behind the curtain.
"Coach was taking a lot of fire for the defense," Robey said. "We take that very personal."
Cornerback Shareece Wright heard somebody riding his bike past practice one day yell, "Wrap up! Learn to tackle!"
Wright said it stayed with him for a while. The comment nagged him, as did what he was seeing on the field. As one of three defensive captains -- and one of two who were healthy enough to play this week -- he felt like he had to do something. Wright called a defensive players'-only meeting Thursday before practice.
"I probably could have shed a few tears," Wright said. "It was personal. It came from the heart. I didn't yell, I didn't cuss, not one time. I didn't call players out. They knew what I was talking about when I said it. I could tell by the way they were nodding their heads."
The coaches broke it down to the players like this: Stop worrying about the big picture. Concentrate on your individual assignments. Make it all about you and, if you do that, it will be all about us. For the first time, the defense played with some consistent cohesion.
Cal quarterback Kevin Riley was under constant pressure. Even when he made a play, he often had a 270-pound guy landing on his shoulders. He was sacked twice and completed only 15 of his 29 passes. He threw two interceptions. OK, so it's Kevin Riley, right? But the Cal rushing attack -- well-hyped with Shane Vereen in tow -- ran into walls. It picked up 52 yards on 20 carries.
"They showed us some things they hadn't done," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. Yeah, like tackling.
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Maybe we should cast aside what the defense did Saturday. Cal and Oregon have dramatically different offenses. The Bears often use two running backs and typically have the quarterback under center. They keep their formations tight, protecting the quarterback with extra bodies, as teams in the NFL do. The Ducks are the greatest show on turf. They spread speed all over the field, barely hesitate to let you catch your breath with a no-huddle tempo and run wild through empty space.
So, why should Saturday mean anything about that Saturday two weeks from now? Well, for one thing USC has a bye week upcoming, more time to get well. Starting linebacker Malcolm Smith and starting defensive end Wes Horton didn't play Saturday. And for another thing, young players build on good experiences, step by difficult step. Lane Kiffin said this game matters to that game. Draw your own conclusions. "It's encouraging. It still comes down to tackling and it still comes down to playing physical," Kiffin said.
Of course, there's another way to look at it. If you were the Oregon offense, would you believe the tape you saw from USC's first five games or the tape you saw from Saturday's?
"They probably still think they will come blow us out, but we have to know that we can't let them come in here and do that to us," Wright said. "We can't allow that."
Mark Saxon covers USC for ESPNLosAngeles.com