ANOTHEREARLY-SEASON Armageddon, another comprehensive butt-kicking by the USC Trojans.If these guys could avoid nodding off against the Stanfords and the OregonStates of the world, they'd be dangerous. ¬∂ Another night on center stage,another VW Beetle--sized egg laid by the Ohio State Bridesmaids—beg yourpardon, Buckeyes—a deep, talented, senior-laden squad that, for whateverreason, goes all to pieces when the lights shine brightest. ¬∂ Don't count outthe Buckeyes, warned Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez, after throwing fourtouchdown passes in his fifth college start, a 35--3 cakewalk that validatedUSC's No. 1 ranking and salvaged an otherwise grim Saturday for the Pac-10(page 38). "They're tough. They're going to probably win out and be back inthe Rose Bowl."
And that would bejust peachy, really, for that broad segment of the American public unfamiliarwith the lyrics to Carmen Ohio. Because it would mean the Buckeyes had not beeninvited back to the BCS championship, from which they drained all the suspensebefore halftime in each of the last two seasons (losing 41--14 to Florida andthen 38--24 to LSU). Even before Ohio State's ill-timed implosion in the L.A.Coliseum, a broad consensus had formed: It's someone else's turn to get waxedby the SEC champion.
Sanchez is a6'3", 225-pound redshirt junior who has a stronger arm, better scramblingability and larger personality than his predecessor, John David Booty. Againstthe Buckeyes' defense, which returned nine starters from the nation's top unitin 2007, he was cool and in command, completing 17 of 28 passes for 172 yards.Sanchez forced one throw—cornerback Chimdi Chekwa made an acrobatic end-zoneinterception—and "left some yards out on the field," he lamented, onother plays.
While he went outof his way to praise Booty, Trojans coach Pete Carroll, in his office after thegame, could not help effusing, "It's like, we're alive again onoffense."
Carroll'sdefense, meanwhile, led by senior linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing,is as full of piss and vinegar as ever. With his customary flair for thedramatic, Maualuga stepped in front of a Todd Boeckman pass in the secondquarter, then turned on what he later called "my 4.2 speed" andtightroped 48 yards down the sideline for USC's third touchdown."Four-two?" said defensive end--linebacker Clay Matthews, who chippedin six tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. "Maybe five-two." As forCushing—Batman to Maualuga's Superman, according to Trojans linebackers coachKen Norton Jr.—he had a game-high-tying 10 tackles and applied the heat onBoeckman that led to Maualuga's pick.
USC's residentHulks—an unproven offensive line with four new starters, including a trio ofsophomores—gave another strong indication that they're going to be, if notIncredible, at least very good in '08. Following the lead of the sole returnee,senior left guard Jeff Byers, they opened the lanes that allowed electrifyingsophomore Joe McKnight to rush for 105 yards on just 12 carries before heretired to the bench in the second half with a migraine.
Before the Aug.30 season opener against Virginia, line coach Pat Ruel was not sure that hischarges were ready, so he quizzed them on precisely how to block variousdefensive alignments. He did this in meetings using flashcards, despiteCarroll's warning that Ruel "be careful of making those guys overthink. Wewant them to play fast."
Soothed by theirperformance in the 52--7 rout of the Cavaliers, Ruel put the flashcards away.On the morning of the Ohio State game, however, he did subject his linemen to adrill in which chairs were aligned in a defensive formation and each player hadto tell him which chair he would block. When the drill got a bit old, freshmanguard Khaled Holmes piped up, "Remember, Coach Carroll doesn't want us tothink too much!"
After brusquelyreminding Holmes that unsolicited input from freshmen is seldom, if ever,welcome, Ruel nonetheless cut the exercise short. "All right," he toldhis guys, "I'm going to trust that you know what you're doing." Spendsome time around this team, and that word keeps coming up: trust.
THE DISTURBANCEemanated from the second floor of L.A.'s downtown Marriott last Saturday.Guests in the lobby lounge were startled by the sight—and sound—of 60 or so USCplayers one floor above them. Before going into a meeting in one of theballrooms, they let out a kind of primal moan—Oooooohhhhh—followed by threesharp grunts: Oof! Oof! Oof!
It was not untilthey got behind closed doors that the Trojans went truly off the hook. In agiant huddle around running backs coach Todd McNair, they danced and bounced,making the floor and the walls shake. Water and sports drinks filled the air.Chants broke out—"SC! Power!" and "War time! Let's take itoutside!"—and shirts came off. A bare-chested Maualuga was hopping andspinning, his frizzy mane trailing him. Matthews and fellow linebacker KalukaMaiava practiced mixed martial arts on each other.
Three years ago,on an official visit to USC, a wideout from Glenville (Ohio), Ray Small,witnessed this madness and was turned off. "How are they successful?"he asked himself. "They're not even serious about the game." Hecompared that to the calm, orderly pregame scene that awaited him at OhioState, where he would later commit.
Small could nothave known that the purpose of this controlled anarchy—a ritual instituted byCarroll not long after his arrival in late 2000—is to reinforce trust and toeliminate doubt. "The preparation is done," Carroll explains. "Wewant them to trust that everything's O.K., that we got everything right.There's no need to be uptight or afraid of making mistakes. Now it's time to goout, have a little fun, play a little Trojanball."
As Carroll toldthe team before the meeting broke up, "You've done everything we've askedof you to this point. And we trust you. Don't hold anything back. You don'thave to be cautious. Play the game like you know you can. Count on it. Trustit."
Roughly six hourslater, on their first possession of the second quarter against Ohio State, theTrojans put their trust in freshman tight end Blake Ayles, whose one-yardtouchdown reception gave his team a 14--3 lead. One suspects that Carrollsometimes orchestrates such heroics for freshmen—his way of signaling tofive-star recruits: You can play here right away!
THAT WAS thesingle positive development for Ohio State on Saturday: Terrelle Pryor provedhe can play right away. As Carroll said of the 6'6", 235-pound freshmanquarterback, "The big stage was not too big for him." The Trojansexpressed surprise not only at the number of snaps the 18-year-old Pryor took(25) but also at how much of the Buckeyes' playbook he had alreadydigested.
With star runningback Beanie Wells sidelined by the most discussed foot injury since Achillestook an arrow to the heel, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel had little choice butto get his highly touted freshman into the mix. Whereas former Buckeyes coachPaul Brown pioneered the use of messenger guards in the 1940s, Tressel wentwith messenger quarterbacks on Saturday. Pryor took five of the 16 snaps duringOhio State's second possession, a 69-yard drive that ended with a field goal.That change of pace—pocket passer Boeckman to dual threat Pryor—wrong-footedthe Trojans for much of the first half.
At one point inthe second quarter, Pryor dashed for 13, 11 and 12 yards. All told, he ran for40 yards, connected on seven of nine passes for 52 more and took far bettercare of the ball than did the fifth-year senior Boeckman, who threw two picks,fumbled once and was sacked four times. While probably losing its shot at athird straight BCS title game appearance, Ohio State did gain a quarterbackcontroversy.
THERE WILL be nosuch debate at USC so long as Sanchez stays healthy—which brings us to themorning of Aug. 8, when Trojan Nation held its collective breath. Before theteam had even begun stretching, Sanchez took a misstep and collapsed to theturf, writhing. "I looked down," he recalls, "and my kneecap's onthe wrong side of my leg."
Trainers slid thedislocated left patella back into place on the field. MRIs and X-rays werenegative. Early the next morning Sanchez's father, Nick, got a call. "In myexperience," says Nick, a captain in the Orange County (Calif.) FireAuthority, "when the phone rings at six in the morning, it's very goodnews, or very bad news."
In this case itwas Mark, who had been testing his knee. "I think I can practicetoday!" he declared. To be safe, the trainers sat him for 11 days. But thatpep, that eagerness to get back into the fray, is vintage Sanchez. When hefinally returned to the huddle, it gave the offense a palpable lift. "I'mnot saying there won't be times when he'll get too pumped," says Carroll."But I like his way."
The coach is alsodelighted by Sanchez's ability to move in the pocket, to spin and scramble andbuy time to keep a play alive. On his final touchdown pass last Saturday,Sanchez felt pressure from his right. Carroll provides the play-by-play:"Big blitz coming, we pick it up—kind of. We've got guys on guys, but it'sstarting to break down. [Sanchez] moves, like he might have to avoid the rush,then realizes he doesn't have to and boom, fires a touchdown pass. As opposedto what he could have done."
As opposed, inother words, to taking a sack, or throwing the ball away, as might havehappened in the recent past. But it's 2008. The Trojans' defense is ferocious,and the offense, as Carroll says, is fun again—not a good thing for USC'sopponents. These guys are never more dangerous than when they're havingfun.
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Photograph by Peter Read Miller
BLOCKADE USC dominated the line of scrimmage, giving Sanchez time to throw four touchdown passes against Ohio State's vaunted defense.
TROJAN HORSES Maualuga (opposite) had a momentum-turning interception runback (even if he did step out of bounds), while Cushing (10) made plays all over the field.
[See caption above]
ROBERT BECK (SANCHEZ)
HE'S THE ONE After waiting his turn, Sanchez is off to a flying start.