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UA’s defense holds USC to season lows in points, yards

Arizona's Marquis Hundley tackles USC quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Arizona's Marquis Hundley tackles USC quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Arizona’s defense is playing with plenty of pop.

While the UA offense fizzled in a 17-10 loss to No. 6 USC on Saturday, the Wildcats’ upstart defense served notice to its remaining four opponents – Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State and ASU – that it won’t “back down,” safety Nate Ness said.

“This is a new Arizona football team,” Ness said. “We do the pushing around.”

Although the Cats failed to upset a top 10 foe for the fourth straight season, they held USC to a season-low 17 points and 367 total yards (more than 100 below its average) with a defense that returned only three starters.

“To turn around this defense after losing all those guys. . . . Flat out, it’s just a great job by his coaches and Mike (Stoops),” USC coach Pete Carroll said. “I told him that before the game. I thought it was awesome that they were able to do that.”

The Wildcats hit so hard, three-fourths of the secondary left the game banged up at different times. But cornerbacks Devin Ross and Marquis Hundley and Ness all returned after a few plays.

“It wasn’t USC being physical, it was us playing our hearts out,” said Ross, who was helped off the field after getting his bell rung. “We were trying to make every play. We came out with a lot of energy – a lot of intensity. Players get hurt that way.”

The Wildcats have two weeks to heal before playing at Washington State on Nov. 8. UA’s medical training staff, led by director Randy Cohen, will be busy. Defensive end Ricky Elmore and tailback Keola Antolin also were banged up.

“They’ll have to work hard to get us all back to 100 percent, but they will,” Ness said.

The UA strong safety hobbled off the field after taking a helmet to his knee when he tried to jump over USC tailback, and cousin, Stafon Johnson on a blitz to get to quarterback Mark Sanchez. Instead Johnson blocked him, somersaulting Ness to the ground. During the play, the Trojans wound up scoring the game-winning touchdown on a 30-yard pass to Stanley Havili.

Ness called the game UA’s most physical – “hands down” – “because they play smash-mouth football and we play smash-mouth football. That’s it.”

USC’s offense punished Arizona on a 17-play, 80-yard drive that gave USC a 10-3 lead with 5:03 left in the first half.

“We knew we had to hit them fast,” Johnson said. “If we didn’t do it right then and there, it was going to be hard for us to do it later on. That hurt them a little bit.”

The Wildcat offense also may need some treatment during the off week. It managed just 54 total yards in the second half.

UA’s mighty spread passing attack disappeared in the second half, when quarterback Willie Tuitama was 2 of 10 passing for eight yards. In all, the Cats threw for only 88 yards.

Their only touchdown came after defensive end Brooks Reed caused Sanchez to fumble at the Trojans’ 15. Four straight power runs by tailback Nic Grigsby got the ball in the end zone.

“I was shocked we couldn’t play better offensively,” Stoops said. “It was a struggle all night.”

USC showed why it owns the nation’s No. 1 scoring and pass defenses – keeping Tuitama and UA in a fog.

The Cats changed to running plays when they should have passed and threw when their run game appeared to be on cue. They settled for short screens against one of the nation’s fastest defenses instead of trying to take shots down the field.

Players and coaches all said they would need big plays. UA’s longest pass went for 14 yards.

“We should have checked some when we didn’t check and we shouldn’t have checked some when we did check,” Grigsby said about UA’s audibles at the line. “It was just a lot of miscommunication we need to work on.”

UA’s best medicine could be a dose of Washington State’s defense. The Cougars have allowed more than 60 points to four of their five Pac-10 foes.

Washington State is allowing 48 points and 459 yards of offense per game – 266 on the ground.

If the Cats can guard against a letdown – remember New Mexico and Stanford – they can become bowl eligible with a win against the Cougars in Pullman.

Arizona's Brooks Reed sacks Southern California quarterback Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter Saturday.

Arizona's Brooks Reed sacks Southern California quarterback Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter Saturday.

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UP NEXT

UA (5-3, 3-2) at WSU (1-7, 0-5), 2 p.m. Nov. 8

Series: Arizona leads 22-13. UA won last year 48-20 in Tucson.

Cougar cuts: Washington State plays at Stanford on Saturday after a week off. The Cougars are allowing 48 points and 460 yards per game, while scoring just 14 points and 254 yards. Dwight Tardy is WSU’s top rusher (50 yards a game).

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