- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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Pete Carroll can enter a stream of consciousness during a news conference and not get out until the Coast Guard rescues him. His explanations surge on and off the subject, swirling into eddies, backing out of nasty sections of the river, racing through the rapids and daring those listening to keep up with him.
Tucked away in one of his answers at his news conference Tuesday, four days before the No. 2 Trojans play crosstown rival UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET), was Carroll's explanation of how his team has gone 11-1 despite losing two Heisman Trophy winners and several other stars from last season's team.
"Although it seems different because the marquee names that had developed and [whom] we had come to understand as the makeup of our team have shifted somewhat, that doesn't mean that you can't play to the same level," Carroll said. "You just do it differently."
Give or take some overtaxed syntax and a tense change here or there, what Carroll said is this: You might not know these names but they're playing just as well. That may be a hard sell regarding the USC offense, which has replaced Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush with John David Booty and a revolving cast of tailbacks.
That may be a hard sell on defense, too, for a different reason. Over the last four weeks of the season, the 2006 Trojans defense has played better than the defense a year ago. That's especially impressive given the quality of competition in November. USC played three ranked teams among its last four opponents.
"We came out this year and we knew what type of defense we were," senior strongside linebacker Dallas Sartz said in a phone interview Wednesday. "We knew we had a whole lot of speed and a lot of guys who run around and hit people. It took us some time to realize what we knew we could do."
The numbers bear that out. In the first seven games, USC allowed 17.6 points per game and forced 10 turnovers. In the last four games, USC allowed only 10.8 points per game and forced nine turnovers. The line of demarcation is the seventh game, the 33-31 loss at Oregon State.
"It took us a loss to get a little pissed off and get back at everybody for that loss," Sartz said. "What it comes down to is it took us a little while to figure out what to do. We got shook up. We all realized it was time."
The Trojans hid their defensive problems until late last season. But Fresno State exposed the vulnerability of the USC pass defense in the Trojans' wild 50-42 victory late in the year, and then Texas quarterback Vince Young made USC his stepping-stone to the NFL in the BCS Championship Game.
That game seems like a long time ago, given how the Trojans frustrated Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn last week. The Irish star completed fewer than half his passes (22-45) for the first time in his 24 starts for coach Charlie Weis and was limited to 6.1 yards per attempt, his second-lowest average under Weis, as USC won, 44-24.
"Everybody is understanding their responsibilities a little better," junior weakside linebacker Keith Rivers said, also in an interview after practice Wednesday. "The younger guys are learning. Everybody is understanding what it takes to finish."
The Trojans have enjoyed better health on defense. Both Sartz and Rivers have started every game after missing huge chunks of the 2005 season. USC has more depth and more continuity, and the results are obvious. In the last month, the Trojans rebounded from their loss to the brink of playing in the BCS Championship Game.
While USC may be a no-name team, nine players made the All-Pac-10 Conference first team, four of them on defense: Rivers, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, nose tackle Sedrick Ellis and free safety Taylor Mays, the Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year. Six other defenders, including Sartz, made either the second team or honorable mention.
If USC beats UCLA for the eighth consecutive time and maintains its hold on the No. 2 position in the BCS rankings, the Trojans will play in their third consecutive BCS Championship Game. It may be Carroll's best coaching job in his six seasons at USC, which is saying something. Not that Carroll would ever look beyond Saturday toward the rewards that could await his team.
"We have proven the value about focusing on the very thing that's right in front of you and maximizing every drop of the opportunity to have a great time today," Carroll said at his news conference Tuesday. "If we do that, we are a little closer to where we like to be. Our ability and our mastery of focusing in that manner is what our challenge is all about. The truth is there is some voting college out there and when they tell us what to do, we will go out and do it. If I had control over that, I would talk about it but I don't. What we do have control over is this day we are dealing with and our upcoming opportunity this weekend."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.