We'll have a damn good season," says Southern Cal Coach John Robinson. "Count on it." O.K., John, but would it hurt your feelings if we didn't count on it a lot?
Fact is, USC looks as if it might only be good instead of its usual very good. Indeed, when Traveler III, the horse that Southern Cal mascot Tommy Trojan rides, did a pratfall during the Oklahoma game last fall, it may have been a bad omen. Not long after the horse tripped, USC did, too, getting itself banned from bowl games for the next two years because of a scandal involving a coach selling complimentary tickets for players. That penalty might erode the Trojan spirit this fall. Things could get a mite disheartening on the field, too, where the fabled tailback position will be in largely untried hands—and feet—and where former starting Quarterback John Mazur, a sophomore, has been told to take a seat while Sean Salisbury, also a sophomore, moves in as signal-caller.
Truth be told, USC's reputation is in danger of slipping. For although the Trojans have won 12 conference titles over the last 20 seasons and have had four Heisman winners in that span, they have finished third and tied for second in the Pac-10 the past two seasons. By USC standards that represents failure. "We had a good team last year," says Robinson, "but we lost three games. We need people who played satisfactorily in 1981 to play brilliantly in 1982."
What happened last year is that the Trojans' usually swarming defense didn't crowd anybody. Thus, in trying to keep the defense off the field, the offense became way too conservative. It was "See Marcus [Allen] run" and little else. Not that there was much choice: as one member of the athletic department says, "We couldn't pass, which probably didn't matter, because we couldn't catch."
These days Robinson is trying to sell anyone who will listen on the idea that "if you win all 11 games you're pretty good, even if you don't get to play in a bowl." Secondary Coach Nate Shaw is similarly upbeat, saying, "We can win a national championship and get a chance to spend Christmas at home." Shaw is half right. Among the season's rigors for Southern Cal is an opener on Sept. 11 against Florida in Gainesville, and then a trip two weeks later to Oklahoma. Yet Robinson has never conducted a more no-nonsense spring practice than he did a few months ago, and Noseguard George Achica, the Trojans' defensive anchor, says of the no-bowl business, "Deprivation is a great motivator."
Salisbury, for one, seems to be plenty turned on, perhaps because he's "scared to death" at having been anointed the No. 1 quarterback. In spring practice he showed that he can throw better on deep patterns than Mazur. And he has the right people rooting for him. Says Robinson, "I think his future is unlimited." For his part, Salisbury says diplomatically, "It's a shame two quarterbacks can't play at the same time. But my idea of playing football isn't sitting on the bench."
At tailback three candidates are vying to supplant Allen. The probable starter is sophomore Fred Crutcher, who has a feel for following his blockers. Close behind are junior Michael Harper, who's the quickest of the three, and sophomore Zep Lee, who's the most powerful.
If the backfield shakes out—the fullback will be the speedy Todd Spencer—all will be well, because the offensive line is up to traditional USC standards. Offensive Line Coach Hudson Houck concedes that his guys "rank right up there with the best we've ever had." Consider: Over the past 18 years, 17 Southern Cal offensive linemen have been first-team All-Americas. The most formidable of the current bunch is senior Weak-side Tackle Don Mosebar, a starter for the Trojans since his freshman year. Mosebar agreed when Houck told him earlier this year that he wasn't playing nearly as well as he should be, given his ability. Thus, in spring practice, Mosebar became hell on legs, crashing with a vengeance and finishing off his blocks—something that he'd been lackadaisical about—with vigor. And on the other side, senior Strongside Guard Bruce Matthews has suddenly gotten the message that good pass protection means locking out with the legs, i.e., spreading his legs so he occupies the maximum amount of turf. Matthews, who has performed ably for USC at every interior offensive line position, should be better than ever.
Split End Jeff Simmons, who makes acrobatic catches with the best of 'em, says, "A player comes to USC because he wants to find out if he's as good as he thinks he is." Too often in recent years the players—and coaches—have not liked the answers they've gotten. All too few of them seem to have taken the view elucidated by Simmons, who says, "There's no better feeling than when a group of people gets together and does something to the best of each one's ability." If that attitude prevails, there will be no pratfalls at USC this fall.
Robinson isn't stretching it in calling Matthews "one of the best."