Mark Sanchez threw for 216 yards and a touchdown, and No. 6 Southern California used its dominant defense Saturday night to hold off Arizona 17-10 and keep its national title hopes alive.
The Trojans' stalwart defense throttled the potent Wildcats, who had averaged 40.4 points per game, ninth in the nation.
The tense, tight game ended in confusion. Arizona punt returner Mike Thomas fumbled and the Wildcats returned the ball into USC territory as the clock expired.
USC (6-1, 4-1 Pac-10) harried Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama all night. The senior star completed 14 of 30 passes for 88 yards and threw an interception.
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The Wildcats (5-3, 3-2) gained a season-low 188 yards and couldn't even pick up an inch on a Tuitama sneak on fourth down late in the fourth quarter.
Stafon Johnson ran for 83 yards and a touchdown for the Trojans.
A fluke play helped the Trojans escape a tight spot in the final three minutes. On first-and-10 at USC's 3, Johnson fumbled at the 10. But USC tight end Anthony McCoy recovered and rumbled 29 yards to the 39.
The Trojans needed a victory to keep pace with the four teams ahead of them in the Bowl Championship Series standings, all of whom won on Saturday.
The game matched two of the four teams tied for the Pac-10 lead midway through the season - the upstart Wildcats, who haven't been to a bowl game since 1998, and dominant USC, pursuing its seventh straight Pac-10 title.
The desert has become a dangerous destination for Top 25 teams. The Wildcats have knocked off six ranked teams in coach Mike Stoops' five seasons, including three in the Top 10.
The Trojans jumped ahead 3-0 on a 43-yard field goal by David Buehler early in the first quarter.
Given the way USC's defense has been performing, that looked as if it might be enough for the Trojans. The Trojans had allowed 7.8 points per game, No. 1 in the nation, and had shut out its last two opponents.
But Arizona answered with a 30-yarder by Jason Bondzio to tie it at 3-3 early in the second quarter. It was the first score conceded by the Trojans in 11 quarters - the longest string since 12 straight in 1959.
USC marched 80 yards in 17 plays, taking a 10-3 lead on a 2-yard run by Johnson with 5:03 to play in the first half.
With its offense struggling, Arizona turned to its defense to turn the momentum early in the third quarter. Defensive end Brooks Reed sacked Sanchez, forcing a fumble that was recovered by tackle Donald Horton at the Trojans' 15.
Four plays later, Nic Grigsby scored on a 5-yard run to tie it at 10-10.
The cardinal-clad crowd of 57,427 was rocking Arizona Stadium. But the Trojans calmly responded with a nine-play, 80-yard drive capped by a 30-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Stanley Havili.
Sanchez avoided a blitzing Wildcat, stepped up in the pocket and coolly found Havili loitering all alone at the 15, and Havili romped untouched into the end zone.
USC was poised to take a commanding 10-point lead when Buehler missed a 30-yard field goal with 10:35 to go in regulation - his first miss in six field goal tries this season.