By Stewart Mandel
September 13, 2009

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- We've seen USC win no shortage of big games during Pete Carroll's tenure, but it's been four years since we saw them do it quite so dramatically.

Back in 2005, the setting was Notre Dame Stadium. This time it was Ohio Stadium.

Against the Irish that October night, the top-ranked Trojans needed a 61-yard pass on fourth and 9 to keep a game-winning drive alive and a do-or-die sneak to win it. Saturday night against No. 8 Ohio State, third-ranked USC found itself facing a second-and-19 from its own 5-yard line, needing to make up five points and 95 yards in the last six minutes of a game-long defensive stalemate.

The difference: Back then the Trojans had a Heisman-winning quarterback (Matt Leinart) and a soon-to-be-Heisman-winning tailback (Reggie Bush) to push their way to victory. Saturday night in front of 106,033 hostile fans, a true freshman quarterback (Matt Barkley) and a previously inconsistent tailback (Joe McKnight) took their turns etching themselves into USC lore.

After being held without a touchdown for nearly 55 minutes, after starting their eventual game-winning drive with a sack and a false-start penalty, Barkley (15-of-31 for 195 yards and an interception) completed consecutive 20-plus yard passes, McKnight powered his way to 32 yards on five carries (he finished with 60 yards on 16 carries) and Stafon Johnson crossed the goal line with just 1:05 remaining to deliver an 18-15 victory over a surprisingly resistant foe.

"Over the years, it seems like either we've blown teams our or lost really close-fought games," said linebacker Chris Galippo, whose first-quarter 51-yard return of a Pryor interception set up USC's only other touchdown. "This was the first game where re really had that game-winning drive, that game-winning stop -- all the things that go into a fairy-tale story."

For about 53 minutes Saturday night, it felt like the fairly tale was playing out on the other sideline.

After all those big-game meltdowns these past few years, the Buckeyes were standing toe-to-toe with the same team that pounded them 35-3 a year earlier. If anything, the game was playing out exactly the way one would expect Jim Tressel to script it. Though Ohio State's offense struggled to find a rhythm, its defense was mostly dominating the Trojans' offense, continually pinning them with poor field position.

When Trojans center Cooper Stephenson's errant snap sailed over punter Billy O'Malley's head and out of the end zone for a safety to put OSU up 12-10 early in the third quarter, the Horseshoe roared with excitement over such an obvious momentum-changer.

But the Buckeyes never could put the Trojans away, blowing countless opportunities. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor (11-of-25 for 177 yards, with 36 rushing yards) never found his rhythm. Twice in the second half OSU drove deep into USC territory only to come away with a field goal and -- in a highly questionable decision by Tressel -- a punt, after a third-down sack of Pryor pushed them back to the USC 36.

All the while, the Trojans ... well, they danced. During breaks in the action, Ohio State's band repeatedly played a catchy riff from the White Stripes' song "Seven Nation Army." The Buckeyes' student section jumped along. On their sideline, USC's players kept jumping right along with them.

Their coach, as befitting his personality, encouraged it.

"I don't know how to convey this, but, we didn't think we were going to lose at any time," said Carroll. "We kept the juice going on the sideline. We needed every single guy jumping like that the entire game to get this done."

Ultimately, USC needed more than some rhythmic jumping to pull off the victory. With 7:05 left, down 15-10, their true freshman -- having compiled just 140 passing yards -- trotted on to the field with the task of engineering a do-or-die 86-yard touchdown drive.

Carroll, his coaches and his players had talked repeatedly about Barkley's uncanny confidence and composure belying his age. Now, he would have to show it. When he walked into the huddle, with the game and, possibly, the Trojans' national-title hopes on the line, "He smiled," marveled receiver Damian Williams. "It showed a lot about his character."

"Our fans had that little section in the end zone. It was basically the 11 of us out there on our own," a smiling Barkley said afterward. "It was fun."

The drive didn't start out so fun for the rookie. On first down, he was sacked by Ohio State's Devon Torrence for a 4-yard loss. USC followed that up with a false-start penalty to create second and 19 at its own 5. With the Trojans desperately in need of a spark, McKnight ran around right tackle for 11 yards to set up third and 8.

That's when assistant head coach Jeremy Bates called for McKnight to run a wheel route. Barkley hit him in stride for a 21-yard gain, then followed that up with a 26-yard dart down the middle to tight end Anthony McCoy.

Despite having gone lifeless for so much of the game, at that point it seemed almost inevitable USC would drive the remaining 37 yards -- and that McKnight would help them do it.

"When we punched it in," said Barkley, "it was good to hear that silence [in the stadium.]"

Most of those Buckeyes fans continued that stunned silence all the way home, a cruelly familiar feeling lately whenever their team faces a highly ranked foe. (Saturday's game marked their sixth straight loss to top-five foes.) Unlike on several previous occasions, however, Ohio State was not outclassed. Its defense played well enough to win.

Unfortunately, the Buckeyes came up one drive short.

"I know this team is just physically drained," said OSU defensive back Kurt Coleman. "We knew the ball was going to be in our court and we had to stop them on that last drive and it's just tough, man. It's tough."

As ugly as they looked at times, the Trojans showed a shade of toughness we haven't often seen of them in recent years. This wasn't a case of Mark Sanchez throwing darts to wide-open receivers against Ohio State's or Penn State's overmatched secondary. Nor did the Trojans unravel when things didn't go as planned like they did last year against Oregon State or in 2007 against Stanford.

With a similar-type "trap" game next week at Washington, perhaps such a rare, tough-earned victory will prevent complacency from befalling them.

"We've already addressed it," said Carroll. "This game can't carry over to next week."

Though he presumably wouldn't mind Barkley and McKnight picking up where they left off.

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