The USC Trojans' offensive identity for most of the season could be defined with quarterback Mark Sanchez helping the USC offense score points quickly by taking chances down the field.
Saturday in USC's 17-3 win over Cal, the Bear defense took that aspect of the USC offense away, forcing Sanchez and the unit to adapt.
"We were very concerned about their defense taking the ball away from us," USC head coach Pete Carroll said. "Mark was schooled all week not to take any chances
To get that accomplished was enough to get us a tough win.
"This was a very big challenge for us this week with Mark because he likes to make things happen and take those shots. He had to tone it down this week, and he did it."
Prior to the game, Carroll expressed some concern with Cal's secondary and its national-best 17 interceptions. Saturday, thanks in part to a reigned in Sanchez, USC didn't throw a single pick.
"I played conservative. I tried to play smart and efficiently. I think I did OK," Sanchez said. "We'll watch the film and see, but the most important thing was no picks and no fumbles.
"It was hard. They want to bait you into throwing things down field. Down the field throws against those guys were tough."
Sanchez finished 18-of-29 for 238 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
"This was a big step for him," Carroll said. "Really, it was a big accomplishment. I was very proud of him."
The identity issue, though, did slow the Trojans down in between three spread out scoring drives including a crucial touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
"We hit a couple of plays that kind of got our confidence back (on our last drive)," offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. "Before we were just kind of running plays and not running our offense."
The 17 points were more than enough for the win, satisfying Carroll plenty. Another score, though, would've been nice.
"I want to score more points," Carroll said. "Had we gotten another touchdown in there, I think it would've felt a lot different."
Against Cal, USC got flagged for 10 penalties for 105 yards, and defensive end Kyle Moore was not surprised at all.
"Of course, they're going to penalize the Trojans a lot regardless. They got to," Moore said. "In any game, we're going to get a lot more penalties than the other team.
"We're the Trojans. Everyone wants to take us down."
Defensive tackle Fili Moala said he thinks the penalties are a byproduct of the Trojans speed, athleticism and playmaking desire.
"I think our defense just plays so aggressively. We just play so fast. Sometimes, we get caught up in the moment," Moala said. "I think we're just really tough. We're playing as hard as we can."
He also thinks, though, USC continues to be targeted by the refs.
"I think our offense gets penalized a lot, and we get penalized a lot because of who we are," he said. "Really, it's just part of the game. Naturally, they just think they've got to penalize us. All we can do is continue to play hard."
On the year, USC has been flagged 21 times more than their opponents, yielding 286 more yards in penalties.
"We just got to keep playing defense," Moore said. "We keep playing and go on to the next play."
Even Carroll thinks the penalties are almost unavoidable at this point.
"The big issue for us remains how our over-aggressiveness leads to us getting penalties," he said. "It is coming with the territory. That doesn't mean it's OK. If we have to live with it, we have to live with it.
"You guys can make it the story, but I don't think it is."
• Running back Joe McKnight returned to the lineup after sitting out for the second time in three games against Washington.
Against the Bears, he rushed seven times for 51 yards and caught three passes for 25 yards.
McKnight flashed some of his trademark elusiveness on a crowd-pleasing 16-yard gain, but the extraordinary play ended in one of the worst ways possible.
"Joe had the fumble on what was just a tremendous run up until that point," Sarkisian said.
McKnight said he didn't think the ball was exposed.
"It was high and tight. He just ran by me and hit the ball," he said. "He got it in the perfect place."
McKnight came back from the mistake to make some big plays late in the game before leaving with a cramp in his right calf.
• Freshman Armond Armstead entered the game early on, assisting on a pair of tackles.
"I've been saying it. Armond's a beast. That guy's a monster," Moala said. "He's just a baby right now. But I saw a good pass rush and saw him do well against the run.
"Once he develops, the sky's the limit."
• USC held Cal to just 27 yards rushing on 26 attempts.
• Rey Maualuga led USC with 10 tackles, continuing a stretch of dominant play.
• Prior to the game, McKnight's grandmother passed away.
• Ronald Johnson caught all of one pass Saturday, but he made it count, taking it into the end zone for the final Trojan touchdown.
"It was the only one I caught today. I just had to be patient that one would come out to me," he said. "We just had to keep executing and be patient. They had a great chance. You definitely had to wait for your shots. When they drop everyone back, you have to be patient."
• Moala said despite having one loss, he's confident USC deserves a spot in the BCS national title game.
"I can't take anything away from anyone else, but I think we deserve to play for the national title. If you look at what we've done since our loss, how our defense has played, the numbers are staggering. I mean, why are teams not scoring on us - ever?
"All we can do is just hope I think if voters took the time to really look at our team and evaluate us, I think they'd the see one of the best team's in the country."
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