Wildcats keep pace for three quarters, but USC offense prevails
LOS ANGELES - Arizona gave No. 1 Southern California all it wanted for more than three quarters Saturday at Memorial Coliseum but fell short in its upset bid, 42-21.
USC (5-0, 3-0 Pacific 10 Conference) racked up a school-record 724 yards of total offense and controlled the ball for 37 minutes to down Arizona (1-4, 0-2) in a closely contested matchup before a crowd of 90,221.
The Wildcats took their status as 37-point underdogs as a personal challenge.
"We heard some of the things that were said about us, so we came in amped," said Arizona senior safety Darrell Brooks, who finished with a season-high 14 tackles.
With USC leading 7-0 after a 96-yard opening drive, capped by the first of four LenDale White touchdown runs, the Trojans were driving toward another score when Brooks stonewalled tailback Desmond Reed, forcing a fumble near midfield.
After a 38-yard Richard Kovalcheck pass to freshman receiver Mike Thomas, Arizona was in the USC red zone, setting up a 4-yard touchdown strike from Kovalcheck to junior tight end Brad Wood.
"We got some things going offensively," said Arizona head coach Mike Stoops. "That was very positive to see."
The score was deadlocked at seven for more than 14 minutes of the second quarter until USC redshirt senior quarterback Matt Leinart and White engineered an 88-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 22-yard scoring pass from Leinart to receiver Dwayne Jarrett.
"They're tough to stop," Stoops said. "Obviously, they're the most talented (team) we're going to play because of how they run and throw.
"They have no weakness," he said.
Despite the Trojans' offensive success, Arizona was able to force two USC turnovers in the first half on Brooks' forced fumble and an interception by sophomore cornerback Wilrey Fontenot.
"We just tried to go out there and make some big plays and have fun," Brooks said of Arizona's attitude in the first half. "Playing the No. 1 team in the nation, this is the biggest stage there is."
USC came into Saturday's game with a 77-7 third-quarter scoring advantage over its previous four opponents. USC looked poised to add Arizona to the hit list after the 6-foot-2, 235-pound White forced his way through the Arizona defense less than four minutes into the second half for a 21-7 USC lead.
Redshirt sophomore Kovalcheck refused to let the Cats roll over and play dead, leading Arizona on two successful touchdown drives in the third quarter, bookends of a third White rushing touchdown.
The first of Kovalcheck's third quarter scores was a season-long 42-yard connection with Thomas, who broke free from USC cornerback John Walker on the strong side of the field and hauled in the arching bomb.
"We prepared hard this week, and when we went out on the field, we knew what we were doing," Kovalcheck said of the team's offensive resurgence, coming a week after the Wildcats' 28-0 shutout at California.
Arizona's special teams help set the table for both the offense and defense all afternoon.
Senior punter Danny Baugher, who leads the nation in yards per kick, booted six punts for an average of 46 yards per kick, with four placed inside the Trojan 20-yard line and three for more than 50 yards.
Junior receiver Syndric Steptoe returned five USC kickoffs for 159 yards, including a career-best 76-yard effort in the third quarter that led to the third Kovalcheck touchdown pass, narrowing the Trojans' lead to 28-21.
"Our special teams have been solid all year," Stoops said.
USC proved to be too much in the final quarter, with Leinart (26-of-40, 360 yards) hitting Jarrett for a 29-yard touchdown to put the Trojans ahead 35-21.
Arizona lost sophomore linebacker Dane Krogstad to a knee injury on the possession. His status was unknown yesterday.
The Wildcats made a final attempt to score on a drive that included a 19-yard Kovalcheck pass to Wood and a 17-yard run by senior tailback Mike Bell.
On fourth down and two at the USC six-yard line, Kovalcheck fired a pass to Wood in the end zone that Trojan safety Ryan Ting deflected into the air. Ting recovered the ball at the 4, dashing Arizona's upset hopes.
White closed out the afternoon on the ensuing drive with his fourth and final touchdown of the day. He was set up in part by a 65-yard gain by fellow junior tailback Reggie Bush, who ended with 115 yards on 14 carries.
Saturday marked the third consecutive game Bush and White ran for more than 100 yards.
"They have a lot of weapons on offense," Brooks said.