Turning point for Trojans

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Saturday night looked a lot like the moment Lane Kiffin's USC football program pushed off from rock bottom.

The underdog Trojans traveled to the desert and physically dominated No. 18 Arizona in a 24-21 win that, they hope, was the first step back up the college football ladder. It wasn't stylish or even particularly original, as USC largely mimicked Stanford's game plan from the previous week.

But it had the feel, right or wrong, of a turning point, with USC players predicting grander things to come. This program, knocked down by the NCAA and kept down by the other teams in the Pac-10 until now, has been searching for one of those all season.

"This is the way we should be playing," defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said. "It gives us a new start for our program next year. We finish this year strong, win the next few games and win out, come back next year and try to do it all."

For this program to think big seemed laughable two weeks ago, following a 21-point home loss to Oregon. But this group of USC players has shown surprising resolve, especially since their apparent carrot -- a meaningful bowl game -- had been yanked away months before camp opened. Since the Oregon loss, the Trojans (7-3, 4-3 in the Pac-10) have managed to win a topsy-turvy shootout against Arizona State and a wrestling match in the trenches at Arizona.

Now, with upcoming games against crumbling Oregon State and mediocre UCLA and Notre Dame teams, a 10-3 season is looking eminently within reach. If these guys can win 10 games in what should be their darkest hour, perhaps their future isn't as cloudy as it once seemed.

At times, the Trojans hardly knew what to say after Saturday's game. It had been that long since they won a game as an underdog, maybe as long as nine years, since a 27-0 beating of UCLA in Pete Carroll's first year.

Make no mistake, Saturday was an upset, if a mild one. Arizona, which had lost just one game at home this season, was a four-point favorite. Two weeks earlier, USC had been gunning for the upset only to see Oregon run away with a 24-0 finish.

"It does kind of feel like an underdog win, which is kind of unique for us," Kiffin said. "But that's where we are right now."

In part because of his age, 35, and his meandering path back to the Trojans, Kiffin rarely gets much credit for his coaching ability. But Saturday's game plan, which is his responsibility, was perfectly adapted to the opponent. Stanford exposed Arizona's lack of physicality, so USC adjusted its playbook -- and, at times, its personnel -- to follow the script. It ditched balance in the second half, often packed the line with two tight ends and just handed Marc Tyler the ball and told him to run downhill.

USC ran 44 plays in the second half and 29 of them were runs. Arizona, which had risen as high as ninth in the Associated Press poll this season, knows where it's failing.

"We've played back to back physical teams and we didn't play well against either," coach Mike Stoops said.

The result for USC was something from the old days. Tyler carried the ball 31 times and rushed for a career-high 160 yards. Afterward, Tyler wasn't sure how tired Arizona's defense was, but he knew exactly how tired he was.

"I just want to go home," Tyler said.

Imagine how some of those linebackers felt. USC's offense had the ball for more than 37 minutes, 15 more than Arizona, which rushed for only 51 yards, in part because Casey created havoc on the interior. Kiffin has, at times, been sharply critical of USC's offensive line, but that looked like a motivational technique after Saturday's game, when they pushed around a good Arizona defensive front.

When games have been won and lost in the tight spaces on the field this year, USC has usually come out on top.

"It really took its toll in the second half," tackle Matt Kalil said. "Those guys were really worn out, and they're some great defensive linemen."

The goal has shifted step by step for USC this year, from 13-0 all the way to 10-3. But if they pull it off, winning their final five games -- and they figure to be favorites in these last three -- it might be the foundation stone for a new era.

"We're putting a lot of emphasis on winning these last three games, finishing 10-3 and coming back next year feeling strong, feeling good about ourselves," Kalil said. "This is really a big win."

And, yeah, it's probably the biggest since Kiffin got back in town.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.