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DEFENSE ONLY GIVES SO MUCH.

Byline: PAUL OBERJUERGE

Fourth-and-goal from the 14. Eighty-one seconds on the clock. Game on the line. Coliseum crowd of 90,008 standing and roaring as if it were paid by the decibel.

Cal spent its final timeout, and Pete Carroll called over his weary defenders one last time.

And what did USC's coach - and defensive coordinator - have to say to his guys at this critical moment?

Not a whit of strategy, Carroll insisted. Not one X or O.

``I said, `Can you believe how great this is? One play to win the game?' '' Carroll said. ``And those guys love that sort of stuff. And I said, `Let's go out and do this.' ''

And they did. Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers, nearly perfect for nearly the entire game, felt pressure and threw too hard and too soon, and the ball sailed past sprawling receiver Jonathan Makonnen, closely covered just inside the end zone by Kevin Arbet.

Top-ranked USC had completed another high-wire-without-a-net act, holding off seventh-ranked Cal 23-17 in a nerve-racking game that extended the Trojans' winning streak to 14 games, avenged a triple-overtime defeat at Cal last year and kept the Trojans No. 1 for at least another week.

It was an exceedingly odd game. A look at the statistics would indicate a Cal victory. Perhaps a Cal blowout.

First downs: Cal, 28-12.

Rushing yards: Cal, 157-41.

Passing yards: Cal, 267-164.

Net yards: Cal, 424-205.

Time of possession: Cal, 37 minutes, 11 seconds-22:49.

Rodgers tied an NCAA record with 23 consecutive completions. He didn't have a ball land anywhere but in his receivers' hands until midway through the fourth quarter.

Yet the Trojans won.

Ryan Killeen made three field goals. Cal's Tom Schneider missed one of two.

USC scored on four of its five trips into the red zone. Cal was 2 for 4.

Ultimately, it was the victory of an NFL-tested defensive coordinator (Carroll) with a cunning and patient game plan against an NFL-caliber offensive coordinator (Cal coach Jeff Tedford) who happens to be a high priest of the West Coast offense.

Carroll scowled as he said it ``because I hate the expression, but what we did was bend but not break.''

The West Coast offense is a marvelous thing. Receivers all over the field, someone always open. And Cal, Tedford and Rodgers are masters of it.

Perfect pitches and catches. Lots of short-yardage situations because J.J. Arrington gashed USC for 112 rushing yards. Chains moving again almost before they were set.

But Carroll, a former NFL coach, had seen this before. The pros are lousy with West Coast schemes.

Carroll knows from experience you can't really blitz the West Coast because the ball doesn't stay with the quarterback long enough.

He knows the West Coast rarely will take a shot down the field. So you keep everything in front of your safeties and make sure they don't miss tackles (Scott Ware and Jason Leach rarely did).

And you stretch those drives. See if they West Coast can be perfect the length of the field.

The West Coast doesn't generate many cheap points against a disciplined defense, not while the quarterback is dumping off those short passes. And not many long gainers; Cal had exactly one play that went for as many as 20 yards.

Then, at the end, when the field gets short and the offense has less space to spread out your defense, you get a play. A sack. A hurried throw. Get the West Coast third-and-long, and its awesome efficiency plummets.

Not that Carroll was never worried. His defense against the West Coast, which he also described in ``rope-a-dope'' terms, is predicated on the offense making at least an occasional mistake.

``That style is especially efficient if they complete every ball, and their guy was frickin' lights out,'' Carroll said. ``You'd think he'd miss a couple, or they'd drop one.''

USC bent 56 yards on Cal's final possession. But it never broke once Cal was in the shadow of the goal posts.

``We got down there too many times without making plays,'' Tedford said.

Carroll knows. He knows all too well.

Paul Oberjuerge, (909) 386-3865

paul.oberjuerge(at)sbsun.com
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 10, 2004
Words:695
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