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"Second" Chance U.: Defensive Backs Key to USC

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Just about everything clicked in USC's 41-20 rout of previously unbeaten Arizona State on Saturday, but no single unit got more highlight-reel moments out of the win than the Trojans secondary.

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Safety Leon McQuay III prevented a touchdown with an excellent play on a deep, Manny Wilkins pass. His deflection away from Sun Devils wide receiver Ellis Jefferson prevented a touchdown at a point in the game when the Trojans held a tenuous, 14-6 lead.

Chris Hawkins introduced himself to Wilkins on a variety of plays, including a rattling sack off a delayed blitz that ended the Arizona State's quarterback's night.

And Jonathan Lockett made the momentum-swinging play of the first quarter USC needed to seize early control after a failed fourth-down conversion attempt put the defense in a tough spot.

"They targeted him because they thought he was fresh and new," fellow cornerback Adoree' Jackson said of Arizona State's gamble to Lockett's side of the field.

Jackson's outstanding play often precludes opposing quarterbacks from throwing his way, so a teammate like Lockett making game-changing plays takes away yet another option.

"I was just excited to see Jonathan Lockett out there balling," Jackson said. "I was fired up. I watched his highlight tape at Mater Dei (High School) and I saw the type of player he was. Now to see him have that same swagger back, he was out there doing his thing... He showed he has that big-play ability.

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"That's what we need on this defense," he added. "To get turnovers and get the momentum for our defense, so when we get back out there, we want another turnover."

The Trojans rank No. 78 nationally in turnovers generated through their first five games, but Saturday's performance was a big step toward getting USC on track. It marked just the second game this season in which USC won the turnover battle, coming off the heels of losing a minus-2 differential in the Week 4 loss at Utah.

"They played with a chip on their shoulder coming off the Utah game," head coach Clay Helton said. "Knowing that they all took it to heart, that they didn't play their best game... that's what good players do."

USC very nearly had two first-half interception of Wilkins, as well, with McQuay almost picking off his deflected long ball. Hawkins, who forced a fumble Week 3 at Stanford, nearly jarred the ball loose on his devastating hit of Wilkins. The Trojans look near the cusp of generating takeaways, which could prove critical to slowing the explosive offenses of the Pac-12.

One of the most explosive offenses thus far in 2016 is Colorado's, and the Buffaloes are next on USC's calendar. The Buffs visit the Coliseum Week 6 at 4-1, ranked No. 21 in the latest Associated Press poll, and averaging 43.2 points per game.

"Their skill level across the board is excellent," Helton said of Colorado's offense. "They distribute it to many people, and they look for the deep ball. They're doing a great job offensively: tremendous speed, [backup] quarterback [Steven Montez] is playing well.

"It's just another week in the Pac-12, it seems like," Helton added. "Just another great offense."

With Montez throwing for 743 yards and eight touchdowns since taking over for an injured Sefo Liufau Week 3, adding another 193 rushing yards, the Buffs have kicked their brand of hurry-up football into another gear. When it comes to the distribution Helton mentioned, five Buffs have 11-plus catches on the year, with two receivers — Shay Fields and Devin Ross — combining for 47 grabs and 10 touchdowns.

The depth of the Colorado receiving corps will again test the USC secondary. Another week getting big contributions from Hawkins, Lockett and others is exactly what the Trojans need to beat the Pac-12 South's only team yet to lose in conference play.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.