Commentary

USC stays in Rose Bowl hunt with Arizona State thrashing

Updated: November 25, 2007, 3:16 PM ET
By Doug Haller | Special to ESPN.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Lawrence Jackson had a message for the Arizona State quarterback before Thursday's game at Sun Devil Stadium.

"We're going to come after you a bit today," the Southern California defensive end said at midfield during the Thanksgiving coin toss.

Rudy Carpenter
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsThe only time the USC defense wasn't all over Rudy Carpenter was when the ASU QB was on the sidelines.
Looking back, Jackson didn't think Rudy Carpenter appreciated it much. It wasn't that Jackson was looking to start something. He just recognized the situation's reality. Arizona State, despite its recent revival, had allowed 43 sacks, second most in the country.

Perhaps Carpenter just should have been thankful for the notice. True to Jackson's word, the No. 11 Trojans harassed the emotional Carpenter. They sacked him six times, bloodied his lip and exchanged words with him in a 44-24 win that vaulted them back into the Rose Bowl conversation.

Raise your hand if you missed them.

"This was a big game, just to show the nation what we could do, and that we're the No. 1 team in the Pac-10," defensive end Everson Griffen said.

"We just blew out the No. 6 team in the country."

The Trojans did so with relentless defensive pressure, led by Jackson, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound sociology major who said he loves to analyze situations and come up with solutions. Only problem was, such thought wasn't needed against the Sun Devils, who tried unsuccessfully to beat USC with short routes and quick passes.

Jackson's four sacks were the most by a USC pass-rusher since Tim Ryan recorded four against UCLA 18 years ago. The first came with the score tied in the second quarter, fourth-and-1 on the USC 33, Jackson dropping Carpenter for a 6-yard loss.

The third came on the first play of the second half, Jackson catching Carpenter from behind, the quarterback's helmet popping off as he hit the ground. Carpenter got up spitting blood and yelled at Jackson. He tossed his helmet on his way to the Arizona State sideline.

"I don't know [why he was so upset]," Jackson said. "You know, he's a fiery guy. That's just how he is; that's how he plays. He talks like that after good plays, too. I didn't take it personally."

That's starting to become the norm for Jackson. A fifth-year senior, he struggled at times last season. USC coach Pete Carroll had him read W. Timothy Gallwey's "The Inner Game of Tennis," which taught Jackson how to react and relax. Some of it was just maturity, Jackson said. Understanding that if he's on the field for 600 plays, 10 sacks will take him only so far. Point being: The other 590 might be important, too.

His teammates have noticed changes. Injured defensive end Kyle Moore said Jackson pulled him aside after team chapel Wednesday and told him he felt "at peace with himself going into this game."

"He said he had fallen away," Moore said, "and that he was back on track."

It could double as the team's motto. Linebacker Rey Maualuga said the USC coaches recently called a meeting and one by one told the Trojans why they were good enough to beat Arizona State, why they were strong enough to make a Rose Bowl run.

As the team exited its charters nearly two hours before the game, each player wore a black T-shirt with "Respect" printed across the chest, an odd word choice for a program that has finished in the top four of the final Associated Press poll the past five years.

USC Celebration
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsJohn David Booty's big day has pushed USC closer to a possible Rose Bowl berth.
"We know things have happened," Jackson said. "Our team does have a different face tonight than it did after [the] Stanford and Oregon [losses]. People were so quick to shut the door on us, because we have such high standards. One loss here, one loss there, everybody's saying, 'What's wrong with the Trojans?' That's the outside looking in. For us, it's about respecting the game. Respecting the opportunity to go out there and play for each other. We've been big on team unity, despite the adversity."

Record-wise, Oregon (8-2 overall, 5-2 in the Pac-10) still has the best opportunity to meet Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Beat UCLA on Saturday and rival Oregon State on Dec. 1, and the Ducks are in the Bowl Championship Series.

But that could be a difficult chore without quarterback Dennis Dixon, out for the season with a knee injury.

That leaves USC (9-2, 6-2) in good standing, provided it beats UCLA on Dec. 1 at home, something the Trojans have thought about since last season's loss, which likely robbed them of a title-game berth.

"They've been talking trash for a whole year now," Moore said of the Bruins. "We got to take our city back, and that's what we're hoping to do."

Jackson wouldn't make such a statement, choosing to appreciate the moment rather than worry about the future.

"This means a lot to us," he said of beating Arizona State. "We were in a tough situation at one point in time, [but] not in one second did we think it was impossible. We knew it would be hard to get back in this situation, but we never closed the door on being Pac-10 champions. It took a lot for it to happen, but our No. 1 goal at the beginning of the season is to get to the Rose Bowl."

After Thursday's win, the Trojans are one step closer.

Doug Haller writes for The Arizona Republic.