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November 12, 2008

USC defense aims for perfection each week

USC's defense failed.

At least that's the way Clay Matthews sees it. Seriously, how could the Trojans feel good about last week's victory over California?

They gave up three points. And that's three too many.

USC has allowed just 60 points through nine games and is on track to surrender the fewest points in 20 years. That should ensure recognition as one of the greatest defenses in college football history, though detractors surely would argue the Trojans benefit from facing offensively challenged teams.

Regardless of the opponent, Matthews said the Trojans' goal is simple.

"To be honest, I think we aim for a shutout every game," Matthews said. "The defensive mentality we have here is to be dominating and relentless and get after it. We're not going to sit around and admire what we've done.

"As a defensive unit, we have great expectations of ourselves. We consider ourselves a defensive team. We just have the standpoint that we're going for a shutout every game. That's hard to do."

It is hard, but it's not impossible. Tennessee once shut out every regular-season opponent. Of course, that was before the emergence of the spread. Actually, it was before the Wishbone and the Veer, the I-formation and face masks, too.

From 1938-40 Tennessee posted 26 shutouts in 33 games, which is an amazing accomplishment in any era.

Shutouts don't come as easily today. This season, 45 teams average more than four touchdowns per game, which would seem to reinforce USC's defensive dominance.

The Trojans have posted three shutouts and allowed just one opponent more than 10 points Oregon State scored 27 points in an upset victory Sept. 25. USC has allowed just 23 points and two touchdowns in the six games since.

"I think it was an eye-opening experience," Matthews said of the loss to Oregon State. "Obviously, after a loss early in the season, we realized we couldn't have a slip-up again. We listened to what our coaches said as far as mistakes we had, and they were easily corrected.

"It was missed tackles and missed assignments. Once we took care of that, we put it all together."

USC's defense should be outstanding. Five players tackle Fili Moala, end Kyle Moore, linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing and free safety Taylor Mays have been projected as possible first-round picks in various mock NFL drafts.

Matthews, who moved from linebacker to end and is among the team leaders in tackles and sacks, said USC's defense has much more than great talent.

"I think we're just a cohesive unit," he said. "Everybody is friends on the defensive unit, and we trust each other and rely on each other. As long as we play within the framework on our defense, it should work out. We understand that and we're playing team defense."

Cynics might question the schedule. The Trojans have faced three teams Washington, Washington State and Virginia who are among the 10 lowest-scoring teams in the country. They also shut out Arizona State, which ranks 87th in the nation in scoring offense.

But Oregon and Arizona are among the country's 12 highest-scoring teams, and USC held both to 10 points. The Trojans also held Ohio State, which averages 26.6 points, to three.

The Trojans have remaining games against Stanford, Notre Dame and UCLA. Based on USC's defensive average, they would project to finish the regular season having allowed 80 points, which would be the lowest total since 1988, when Auburn gave up 79 in 11 games.

Of course, the Trojans goal is to finish with just 60 points surrendered. Allowing any more than that would be a failure.

A new streak?

Last season, Navy ended the nation's longest streak of futility against a single opponent. Now, the Midshipmen are out to show their 46-44 triple-overtime victory over Notre Dame, which ended a 44-game losing streak to the Irish, was more than a stroke of luck.

"Actually, our frame of mind is probably different from last year because people we know and newspapers are saying it was a fluke," Navy running back Shun White said. "We want to prove it wasn't a fluke. We're practicing with more of a purpose this time around. We'll be ready for them.

"We want to show we didn't just get lucky. We want to put a stamp on it that we can come out and beat this team again."

The Midshipmen (6-3) have reason to be confident. They've won five of their past six, which has included victories over Air Force and Wake Forest. Meanwhile, Notre Dame (5-4) has lost two in a row and was shut out by Boston College last week.

Navy is second in the nation in rush offense, while Notre Dame's defense has had some difficulty stopping the run of late. The Irish have allowed an opposing back to exceed 100 yards in each of the past two games.

Random thoughts and observations

Beware, No. 17 North Carolina and No. 20 Florida State. Over the past four weeks, ranked ACC teams are 3-7, and that includes North Carolina's and Florida State's victories a week ago. In the past four weeks, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Maryland have lost as ranked teams. Before last week, the last time a ranked ACC team won was Florida State's 30-20 victory over Virginia Tech on Oct. 25. This week, North Carolina travels to Maryland and Florida State is at home against Boston College.

Iowa's 24-23 upset of Penn State definitely is a season-maker. And the Hawkeyes were agonizingly close to having a huge year. Iowa's four losses have come by a total of 12 points, and the largest margin of defeat was five points against Northwestern.

Two years ago, South Carolina was a field goal away from eliminating Florida from the national championship race. The Gamecocks' defense might be able to slow down the Gators on Saturday. The Gamecocks' offense? Well, that's another story.

Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell recently said making All-Big 12 would be harder than making an All-America team. He has a point. The same might be said for wide receivers. Eight of the nation's top 30 receivers are in the Big 12. Michael Crabtree is guaranteed first-team All-Big 12 recognition. But if the Big 12 honors three, who are the other two? Either Missouri's Jeremy Maclin, Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant or Texas' Jordan Shipley will be left out.

For the fifth consecutive game, Vanderbilt is trying to clinch bowl eligibility when it travels to face Kentucky. The Commodores haven't been to a bowl since 1982, but that drought could be coming to an end this week. Both Vandy and Kentucky were trounced by Florida. Both had close losses to Georgia. Vandy lost a close game to Mississippi State; Kentucky won a close game against Mississippi State. Vandy beat South Carolina by a touchdown; Kentucky lost to South Carolina by a touchdown. And if Vanderbilt falls short again, there is a game against Tennessee next week.

Nebraskans already loved coach Bo Pelini. Now, they surely love him more. The Huskers clinched bowl eligibility with last week's 45-35 victory over Kansas. And with Kansas State and Colorado remaining, the Huskers figure to finish 8-4 with close losses to Virginia Tech and Texas Tech. That's a remarkable improvement over last season's 5-7 finish.

Auburn must defeat Georgia this week or Alabama on Nov. 29 to extend its eight-year streak of bowl appearances.

Missouri is the probable winner of the Big 12 North. Should the Tigers upset the South Division representative in the Big 12 championship game, it could create vast confusion in the national championship race. Who would go to the BCS national championship game? Could a Big 12 South team that didn't win the division play for the national championship?

Kansas has lost three of its past four games and given up at least 45 points in each of the losses.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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