One play was all it took. One play made Torin Harris a hero. One play gave the Trojans’ their first win of 2011. And that one play illustrated the Trojans’ biggest defensive improvement from last season, their two-minute defense.
When Harris intercepted a pass from Minnesota true freshman quarterback Max Shortell with 53 seconds left on the game clock, those in the Coliseum collectively breathed an audible sigh.
“I just had to bring myself back after that touchdown that they scored [earlier in the quarter]. I felt I had to prove myself, I didn’t feel like walking off the field with that on my back,” Harris said.
As the Golden Gophers crept back into the game late Saturday, anxiety crept upon those donning cardinal and gold. USC players even admitted it: their two-minute defense became reminiscent of 2010.
“It was a huge play for us,” head coach Lane Kiffin said. “Last year we really didn’t make those plays, so it gives us a great deal of confidence to know that we can close a game out late in the fourth quarter.”
Fans remember the all-too-fresh losses against Washington and Stanford last season. With the Golden Gophers on their own 28-yard line and a trunk full of momentum Saturday, they looked to be closing in on field-goal range which would have given them a 20-19 lead.
But Harris let fans and critics know that despite the Trojans’ nerve wrecking second half, this defense is indeed stronger than when head coach Lane Kiffin first took the helm.
“It’s a new year. We had a lot of things to prove. It’s a totally different and new year, brand new players on defense and offense,” Harris said.
While it took only one play to literally save the Trojans from a potentially devastating loss on their home turf, the pick also served as a symbol.
“It was huge, it shows our progression from last year. Last year we fell short in those situations but now we showed that we’ve grown, returned, got guys that have a year under their belt, and came up with a big play today,” linebacker Shane Horton said.
After the recent resignation of secondary coach Willie Mack Garza, it was expected the defensive backs might come off rusty or out of sorts.
“We just [had to] move forward. We didn’t have a choice in the matter. That’s really all you can do is go out there and play,” Harris said. “I think we did well as a unit, but obviously there’s always room to improve.”
“Well” is an appropriate word, as there were many positives to take from the defense as a whole. The defensive line was quite disruptive, including two sacks from Da’John Harris. And middle linebacker Chris Galippo led his unit with a plethora of crucial tackles (6) and sacks (1.5). But “well” doesn’t lead to an undefeated season, which the Trojans have stated they hope to achieve.
“We just have to keep pushing the ball down the field, capitalize on third downs and even fourth downs now. And defense has got to play good, like we finished today,” Horton said.
Kiffin knows the defense has improved, but also needs to be drastically better. When asked if this effort by the Trojans would have beaten their next opponent, fellow Pac-12 conference member Utah, he didn’t hesitate to say “no.”
Now that first game jitters are out of the way, the Trojans know there are no excuses. Thanks to Harris, USC came out with an escape win Saturday, but they also learned a valuable lesson: the defense can’t let up until the clock reads 0:00.
“The game is never over. We just got to play good on both sides of the ball in the future. We just have to play better and move on,” Horton said.