USC Survives Close Call With Wildcats
LOS ANGELES -- Last week, USC saw its national title hopes crash and burn against Stanford. This week a realistic shot at the Rose Bowl was on line for much of the game until a Joe McKnight punt return turned things around as the Trojans escaped with a 20-13 win over Arizona.
USC survived spotty quarterback play from backup Mark Sanchez, a solid attack from Arizona signal-caller Willie Tuitama and came up with the big plays when it needed to avoid losing consecutive games at home. Without McKnight, a talented back who had struggled to find a role in the offense, the Trojans would likely be traveling to Notre Dame next week riding a two-game losing streak.
"You got to see what we've been talking about and we've been thinking could happen for us," USC Coach Pete Carroll said of McKnight. "This is a fantastic football player. Today I think things happened for him. I think we take a big step in that regard that now we can fit him in on a regular basis."
USC was on the ropes going into the fourth quarter. Arizona converted a late Mark Sanchez interception into a field goal to tie the game at 10-10 going into halftime. The Wildcats came out in the second half in full control of the game, continuing to frustrate Sanchez, who was making his first start in replacing the injured John David Booty. The USC attack couldn't get going and Arizona's offense was good enough to take a 13-10 lead.
Then, with about 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Joe McKnight fielded a punt on the USC 30-yard line and returned it 45 yards. The USC offense set up at the 25 and immediately went to work as Sanchez found tight end Fred Davis for a quick-strike touchdown. All of the sudden, Sanchez had found a way to get to the end zone and Davis, USC's most consistent offensive weapon, got his hands on the ball. The Trojans took a 17-13 lead and in a flash took control of the game.
"I hope that I proved to them now -- proved to the seniors that I can play with them," McKnight said.
That wasn't the only play that McKnight came up with. On a crucial drive where USC started pinned on its own one-yard line with 7:09 left, McKnight made the play that secured the Trojans' victory. On second and eight at the 14, McKnight broke free for a 59-yard run that set up USC at the Arizona 27-yard line. The Trojans went on to run all but 57 seconds off the clock and kick a field goal secure the final margin of 20-13.
At the end of the day, McKnight ran for 75 yards on 13 carries to go with the game-saving punt return. His performance overshadowed the poor play from Sanchez, who struggled for most of the day despite Carroll's attempts to paint a positive picture of his quarterback play.
His decision to throw toward all-everything cornerback Antoine Cason at the end of the first half allowed Arizona to take control of the game when Cason's interception set up the game-tying field goal. And when he wasn't throwing interceptions, Sanchez was rarely making enough plays to get anything going. He finished completing 19-of-31 passes for 130 yards, two interceptions and the touchdown pass to Davis.
"It was ugly," Sanchez said of his play. "It was a little bloody. It was a mess."
But at the end of the day, you can't deny Carroll or Sanchez one thing -- USC pulled out the win.
Carroll said Booty's broken finger was about three weeks away from being healed, but didn't rule out an earlier return. But for now, Sanchez heads into practice next week as the starting quarterback.
For Arizona, Tuitama made enough plays to stay afloat, but didn't get enough support from the rest of the offense to win the game. He finished completing 30-of-43 passes for 233 yards and never found the end zone. He never found a running game either as the Wildcats totaled a meager 22 yards on the ground. Rarely is throwing 43 passes a formula for success.
Player of the Game
This one's easy -- Joe McKnight saved USC today. Without him, the Trojans may be facing a 1-2 start in the Pac-10 with road games remaining against Cal, Oregon and Arizona State.
Play of the Game
This one's easy as well. McKnight's punt return set USC up for the go-ahead score and completely changed the
complexion of the game.
If USC fans can't get excited about today's win, they've got a matchup with the lowly Irish of Notre Dame next week to look forward to. Notre Dame couldn't bottle momentum from last week's upset of UCLA and lost to Boston College 27-14 today. But if anything will get the Irish going, it's a little USC blood in the water. Next week could be another tough one for the Trojans.
For the Wildcats, they return to Tucson after a valiant performance at USC to face a winnable matchup against Stanford. Arizona drops to 2-5 with today's loss and desperately needs a win.